How Does The Brain Determine Right From Wrong?

4 min read
5 July 2024
How Does The Brain Determine Right From Wrong?

It is thought that our brains can consciously process forty frames of information in one single second. However, the unconscious brain can process around 1.2 million frames of information in that same second. Scientists believe these unconscious bits of information actually drive our decision-making, and we use the fewer conscious bits to help us rationalise those decisions. Knowing that our decisions are being driven from a behind-the-scenes mechanism, how can we improve our decision-making?

In a recent TEDx talk, Kimberly Papillon spoke about how neuroscience can help fair-minded people make better decisions about other people despite their implicit or unconscious biases. She discussed several different studies in her talk, including one conducted at Harvard University.1

In the experiment, volunteers were told they would have an email conversation with a person in a room next door. The people answering the emails gave the same answers from a list of questions the volunteers were told to ask, including math and verbal SAT scores. Two email addresses were given to the volunteers, one beginning with ‘Amy’ and one beginning with ‘Chen’. Volunteers were also told they would be having an email conversation with an Asian-American woman named Amy Chen beforehand.

So what happened in the study? Scientists asked the volunteers if they remembered the math scores from both email addresses. Participants recalled the math SAT scores to be higher than they were originally given for the ‘Chen’ email address, while the scores from the ‘Amy’ address were lower than originally given in math. They flipped for verbal scores, with ‘Amy’ being given artificially high scores and ‘Chen’ receiving artificially lower scores.2

Remember, students were told who athey were emailing ahead of time, and they knew both email addresses went to the same person. However, implicit bias was clearly shown in this experiment. What part of the brain is responsible for decision-making, and how can we help make fair decisions that overcome our implicit bias?

The Parts of the Brain Involved in Making Decisions

Implicit bias is unconscious, and this means we aren’t actively processing what we are thinking and responding to. Knowing how our brains make choices can help us overcome biases we have developed as we have grown up and experienced the world. Our brains are incredibly complex, and although we understand what many of the parts do, we still don’t know how some of these areas interact. A brief explanation of how we make decisions includes these brain regions:

  • Frontal lobe: The largest lobe of the brain. Located in the front of the head, the frontal lobe is involved in personality characteristics, decision-making and movement.

  • Hippocampus: Embedded deep within the temporal lobe, the hippocampus plays a major role in learning and memory. The bits of memory stored here likely play a role in implicit biases. 

  • Amygdala: Also located deep inside the temporal lobes, the amygdalas are responsible for decision-making, emotional responses, and memory processing. Our ‘flight or fight’ reflex originates in the amygdala. 

A healthy brain means these structures (and many others) are working in unison to help us process information, recall information and memories and use internal and external factors to help us make good decisions. A study published in Neuron found that specific parts of the decision-making process were altered in people suffering from mental illnesses. Impairments within the parts of the brain or the pathways connecting them could impact how we make choices.3


“We all have cultural bias, racial bias. One of the difficult things around this subject matter is to deny that we have places we go to subconsciously, and unless you consciously decide that that’s wrong and you’ve got to do something about it, especially if you’re in a position of power, it won’t change. ”

- David Oyelowo


Am I Making the Right Decisions?

To improve performance, we must be making good decisions in business. Leaders have a responsibility to make ethical decisions that could impact a great number of people. But, how do we know if our decisions are good ones? Are our implicit biases leading the way, or are we using our brains to overcome these internal messages and actually make good choices?

It’s normal to experience fear before, during and after making a significant decision. Fear will push us to go past our norms and boundaries and embrace ideas that may seem unnatural at first. Cognitive dissonance is also a consequence of making choices, and breaking away from deeply ingrained thinking takes courage. Realising that our past beliefs do not have an ethical footing means we are ready to make decisions despite those biases. 

On a more positive note, making good decisions will increase confidence as you are reminded that you can make important decisions and that the outcomes will often meet or exceed expectations. It doesn’t mean everything we do will always be perfect, but it means we are using our maximum potential to ensure maximum performance. However, this process is never perfect. We can continually improve, and we should always take the time to ask if we are making the right decision--or not. 


  1. Papillon K. The Neuroscience of Decision-Making: Are we Foul or Fair, (2019).
  2. Knowledge@SMU. Asian maths whizz and talkative females: how stereotypes can actually boost performance. Knowledge@SMU, (2009).
  3. Hathaway B. How the brain helps us make good decisions — and bad ones, (2019, accessed 17 October 2021).

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