Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford


  • Amber L. Kelly
  • Stephanie A. KazanasEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_478-1



Neuroethics is a relatively new field that covers topics concerning the social, legal, and ethical implications of neuroscience and addresses aspects of neuroscientific research.


The field of neuroethics has been addressing issues of neuroscientific research for many years. In the past, many controversial topics have been researched; for example, in the early 1940s, prefrontal lobotomies were used to treat mental disorders. This procedure involved severing the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain in an attempt to ease symptoms, such as suicidal ideation, obsessions, and delusions. Experimentation during the 1930s and 1940s led to the infamous Nuremberg trials where criminals from the Nazi regime were punished for their crimes against humanity. Among other atrocities, their crimes included neurosurgical procedures such as lobotomies, experimentation on human participants without their consent, and other inhumane experiments. Following this, many boards were formed over the next 30 years, including the International Brain Research Organization and the Society for Neuroscience. These organizations review how research is conducted and how neuroscience is taught to students.

The ethical implications of neuroscience, such as the privacy of a participant’s brain scan, can ripple through other aspects of neuroethics, such as its social and legal aspects. If, for example, a participant’s information was to be identified, due to the small sample size of neuroscientific studies, the social ramifications could include future discrimination if said participant had a deviance from neurotypical brain scans. Although this could be a very small difference in the brain, the general public may believe it to have a larger impact. Indeed, many people deem information and studies concerning the brain to be more accurate and important (Farah 2005). This misunderstanding could also influence the legal side of neuroethics. For example, brain scans could be given as evidence in a court system that does not fully understand how to interpret these data. This could lead to swaying a jury, wrongful convictions, and weakening the system that is currently in place, depending on how much the general public values neural data. The three main sections of neuroethics (ethical, social, and legal) are crucial in maintaining a safe practice of research that not only protects the participants but also the researchers that embark on attempting to understand and further science.

Ethical Implications of Neuroscientific Research

If we were to use modern ethic boards and regulations, previous work deemed well-intentioned by the researchers themselves and, commonly, others would fall short of the ethical standards we hold today (Illes and Bird 2006). Neuroethical researchers have attempted to identify the major ethical dilemmas that past and current researchers face. Privacy is a major concern among researchers in this field. A participant’s privacy encompasses all information collected from them, including brain images, test scores, and unique identifiers. These data, particularly their unique and limited brain scans, may be more identifying than data collected for other psychological or biological purposes (Illes and Racine 2005).

Another argument under the privacy umbrella is whether to allow researchers to gather information about intimate details of a person’s life. Many people speculate that as technology advances, data may be able to estimate what people are thinking (Illes and Racine 2005). The main concern is that these thoughts will not be private and can then be shared among researchers (Illes and Bird 2006). Commonly, the thought of someone being able to read another person’s mind is intrusive and scary, so exploration of this topic would be no different. Similarly, understanding what and why people think the way they do is a very appealing strategy for marketing research. The term “neuromarketing” describes companies using neurological methods to understand how participants react to their marketing materials. The information that is gathered from studies that either appeal to or are conducted by these companies is at risk for being more popularized and, therefore, more susceptible to identification (Farah 2005).

Social Implication of Neuroscientific Research

Neuroscientific research can be arduous to understand even for trained researchers. The general public is poised at a disadvantage because they are not educated in how to properly read and interpret this difficult information; for example, many individuals have heard of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), but cannot describe how it works, what it measures, or interpret the information that it provides. Advanced technology is commonly used in neuroscientific research, which can enhance the amount of confusion for a layperson trying to understand the data. Neuroethics aims to focus on the social implications that this type of research can have, especially when misunderstood.

Because confusion can stem from limited scientific training or expertise, dissemination is one of the main concerns facing neuroethical researchers. If the average person does not understand a study’s findings, but deems them more definite and accurate (Farah 2005), the misunderstanding could be dangerous. Similarly, studies that include brain images have been rated higher in their scientific reasoning as opposed to studies shown with bar graphs, a topographical map of the brain, or no image (McCabe and Castel 2008). Neuroscientific research garners a considerable amount of media attention, and when not properly disseminated can enhance the likelihood of a misunderstanding. This can lead to neuro-determinism, as individuals manifest this belief in neurological data being concrete and accurate. An individual that falls into this category would put more trust into neurological data. This can become increasingly problematic if this level of trust influences the individual to develop prejudices. For example, if a brain scan was identified, a potential employer may not hire an applicant if they perceive any so-called anomalies on the scan. Even if they were benign in nature, a layperson may not understand that these anomalies would have no effect on behavior, yet their prejudices could lead them to treat the individual differently.

Similarly, the field of neuromarketing grows as an increasing number of companies believe it to be the future of business (Ariely and Berns 2010). This new area will potentially allow marketers to understand a consumer’s desire more fully than when they are asked how they feel about a product. Although this domain is still open-ended and largely uncharted, the standards concerning research and ethical codes that these companies uphold are vastly different from a typical experimental setting (Murphy et al. 2008). Even though government, academic, and some commercial settings are required to obtain informed consent and protect the participants’ privacy, these requirements are missing when the participant is tapped for a neuromarketing study. The research that is conducted in more privatized and commercialized settings are not required to follow the same guidelines, which can influence the ethical integrity of the research itself.

Legal Implications of Neuroscientific Research

Similar to the social effects of neuroscientific research, data that are difficult to interpret can affect the legal system. New studies have proposed using neuroimaging as a way to detect lying, by viewing specific areas of the brain, including the anterior prefrontal cortices, the parahippocampal gyrus, the right precuneus, and the left cerebellum (Ganis et al. 2003). One study reported a 90% success rate at differentiating deceptions during a test for participants that were asked to lie about an object they were asked to take (Kozel et al. 2005). Although the deceptions in this test were very straightforward, many researchers have called into question the extent that this would be a successful measure for more “real-world” data (Illes and Bird 2006). Similarly, “brain fingerprinting” uses event-related potentials that are measured with electroencephalographical methods. These tests have been used to identify “guilty knowledge.” For example, a participant may be shown information that would only be relevant for an extremist group that they potentially belong to; if this participant displayed an increased amount of activity at the sight of this information, it would be considered guilty knowledge, due to them understanding the significance of the stimulus (Farah 2005). This test has been thought of as a way to determine whether perpetrators have more information on the associated stimulus than they want to disclose, such as would be the case with terrorists and criminals. Although these data can be portrayed as alluring, many neuroethical researchers are concerned with this being heralded as the new polygraph test, which has been shown to be widely inaccurate, especially when participants are privy to counteractions such as biting their tongue or counting backward from a specific number to calm themselves (Honts and Kircher 1994). Because these new measures hold the power to become the new polygraph, it is important to ensure that the public understands the data that are the basis for using any kind of lie detecting test. Similar to the social aspects of dissemination being so important, it is crucial that the legal system recognizes the details of these tests. For instance, if neuroimaging is used, the studies that have been previously conducted have not supported “real-life” deceptions, so this particular test would be of no use in a legal case.

Neuroscientific research also has the ability to undermine the idea of free will by suggesting that humans are nothing more than the product of their anatomical makeup. Although most research would not suggest such a strong declaration, many people may mistakenly advocate that criminals have no choice in their actions due to how their brains send signals to commit an action (Farah 2005). Similar to a reflex, the brain may react a certain way that opens the discussion for whether the human mind can control how they respond to a situation before the physical brain makes them do something else. This could lead to more lenient penalties for criminals, especially those in situations that warrant a reflex or instinct, such as accidentally wounding a police officer when they felt threatened.


Neuroethics encompasses the ethical, social, and legal aspects of neuroscientific research. Each of these aspects has concerns about how research may affect the public. As discussed, the ethical implications of this type of research are primarily related to privacy. Participants are entitled to assurance that the information they willingly give will remain confidential. Because studies in this field have such small sample sizes, it is more likely that information could be identifying. Similarly, the social aspects of neuroethics are primarily concerned with dissemination and understanding of research findings. If the general public struggles to understand a study, but is able to identify one or more of the participants, this could lead to discrimination, privacy violation, and an overall misunderstanding. The way that research is distributed to the public is crucial to how people may view it; people may view neuroscientific research as more important, but may not be as enticed by other fields of study. Because of this, the legal system can also be affected. Recent work has shown successful deception detection; however, researchers have not investigated complex forms of deception. The general public may also take findings at face value, especially when shown reports of 90% accuracy. Without proper dissemination and explanation, this could become a new form of lie detection that is not as accurate as people believe it to be, similar to the polygraph. The ethical, social, and legal aspects of neuroethics each hold numerous concerns that should be addressed when researchers consider conducting and publishing their work.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Counseling and PsychologyTennessee Technological UniversityCookevilleUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Lisa L. M. Welling
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyOakland UniversityRochesterUSA