ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2021, Vol. 29 ›› Issue (3): 540-548.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2021.00540

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Why do people “sacrifice life for righteousness”? An explanation from the cognitive neural mechanism of protected values

YUE Tong1, HUANG Xiting1(), FU Anguo2   

  1. 1Research Center for Psychology and Social Development, Southwest University; School of Psychology, Southwest University, Chongqing 400715, China
    2School of Management, Hainan University; Hainan Institute of Corporate Governance, Haikou 570228, China
  • Received:2020-06-02 Online:2021-03-15 Published:2021-01-26
  • Contact: HUANG Xiting


It seems a unique psychological and behavioral pattern of human beings to give up realistic interests or even risk death for a belief about values, which reflects the transcendence of the human spirit. In psychological research, the discussion of the above phenomenon is often carried out in the context of “protected values”, that is, values that an individual refuses to trade for any other values, especially for economic value. In recent years, with the rise of cognitive neuroscience and the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, the research on the cognitive neural mechanism for protected values has provided evidence at the neurophysiological level for the psychological processing process behind “sacrifice life for righteousness”. 
According to the existing research results from cognitive neuroscience, the reason why people can fight against material temptation or even sacrifice life for a particular belief lies in the fact that protected values are characterized and constructed according to absolute rules of deontology. This largely ensures that protected values can bypass the process of weighing the advantages and disadvantages when facing material temptation. It is the first choice for people to observe and judge the rules directly from their semantic memory network, even when facing the possibility of sacrificing for faith, without weighing the advantages and disadvantages. On the other hand, because the protected values are closely related to the process of self and moral identification, they are significantly increased in value importance and can mobilize emotional resources to resist the impact of external information. Therefore, when an individual is required to make a choice between value belief and monetary benefits, he may regard it as a threat to self and moral identity, stimulating negative emotional reactions such as anger and disgust to resist, and then consolidating his original beliefs. That is to say, the balance between the advantages and disadvantages of protected values may be the result of an interaction between the “cold” cognitive rule system and the “hot” subjective assignment and emotional stimulation system: the former provides the most direct value choice for individuals, while the latter helps individuals ignore the considerations of real interests through self-identity and moral feelings.
The current investigation of the cognitive neural mechanism of protected values is still in its infancy, and empirical research in this field is particularly lacking in China. The following aspects may need to be further explored in the future. First, we can learn from the research paradigm and ideas of protected values to carry out empirical research on the core values of Chinese individuals. Second, we should be fully aware of cultural differences when we learn from research on protected values conducted on foreign subjects. Finally, we need to carry out scientific research on the intervention and correct guidance of protected values or core values of Chinese people.

Key words: protected values, cognitive neural mechanism, deontological, utilitarian, backfire effect

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