Humans are complex beings, especially when it comes to decision making. While we’d like to think that our moral choices are based on a conscious and deliberate decision making process, these decisions are actually often influenced by external factors. Some of these external influences include the work environment, the family, and other relationships that a person has with other members of the society. One more factor has now been researched; the effects of antidepressants on moral decision making.
Moral behavior is commonly considered the territory for ethicists and philosophers. However, a recent study suggests that the manner in which we treat other people is dependent on our state of brain chemistry. A group of researchers from UCL (the University College London) and Oxford University have discovered that antidepressants have the capacity to impact the moral decisions taken by individuals – when deciding to act selflessly or selfishly. The findings were published in the Journal of Current Biology.
The research participants (175 in number) were given antidepressants medications and then faced with the choice whether or not to administer (or receive) electric shocks. The objective of the researchers was to determine the amount of pain that the participants were willing to inflict on either themselves or other people in exchange for money.
The findings were interesting. Participants who received citalopram (a drug that enhances serotonin levels) were more compassionate when it came to harming others, willing to pay more to prevent such harm from happening. By contrast, the participants given levodopa (a Parkinson’s drug that enhances dopamine levels) delivered significantly more shocks to others than the control group and were not willing to prevent harm by paying more.
A separate study provides further evidence that antidepressants can actually change the moral compasses of individuals. For instance, what you might otherwise consider unfair can become acceptable when taking antidepressants.
In the study, a subject and his or her partner are handed a certain amount of money. The partner is then asked to divide the money in a manner he or she deems right. The research participant is given the right to refuse taking the money if he or she isn’t satisfied with the proportion awarded. Should this happen, no one gets the money. Normally, the rate of rejections begins to increase when the splits hit around 70 to 30 and it rises as it becomes more and more disproportionate. The participants are willing to reject the offer just to punish the other party for acting in a way they consider to be unfair. They are ready to do so even if it means both of them losing the money.
However, when their serotonin levels are interfered with (upon administration of a dose of SSRIs), the number of rejections reduced significantly. Why the sudden change of moral compass? Is it because they no longer perceive the disproportionate share of money as unfair? In fact it is likely that when individuals are taking certain antidepressants medication, they become more compassionate, and consequently, less willing to inflict punishment on themselves and others.