Commentary | Published:

The roots of modern justice: cognitive and neural foundations of social norms and their enforcement

Nature Neuroscience volume 15, pages 655661 (2012) | Download Citation

Abstract

Among animals, Homo sapiens is unique in its capacity for widespread cooperation and prosocial behavior among large and genetically heterogeneous groups of individuals. This ultra-sociality figures largely in our success as a species. It is also an enduring evolutionary mystery. There is considerable support for the hypothesis that this facility is a function of our ability to establish, and enforce through sanctions, social norms. Third-party punishment of norm violations (“I punish you because you harmed him”) seems especially crucial for the evolutionary stability of cooperation and is the cornerstone of modern systems of criminal justice. In this commentary, we outline some potential cognitive and neural processes that may underlie the ability to learn norms, to follow norms and to enforce norms through third-party punishment. We propose that such processes depend on several domain-general cognitive functions that have been repurposed, through evolution's thrift, to perform these roles.

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Acknowledgements

We thank K. Jan for literature research and O. Jones for comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript, and the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience for support (KK9127 and KK1031).

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Affiliations

  1. Joshua W. Buckholtz is in the Department of Psychology and Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, and the Department of Psychiatry, Psychiatric Neuroimaging Division, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

    • Joshua W Buckholtz
  2. René Marois is in the Department of Psychology and Center for Integrated and Cognitive Neuroscience, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

    • René Marois

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Joshua W Buckholtz or René Marois.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3087

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