The human brain holds personal values with high regard, prompting right or wrong thought processes rather than cost versus benefit when values are questioned, according to new research from Emory University.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify the regions of the brain that are most active when an individual is faced with a situation that calls their personal values into question.

When given the opportunity to betray their values for cash, study subjects processed the decision in the neural systems associated with evaluating rights and wrongs - the left temporoparietal junction - and semantic rule retrieval - the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex - but not with systems associated with reward.

"Most public policy is based on offering people incentives and disincentives," said Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University and lead author of the study. "Our findings indicate that it's unreasonable to think that a policy based on costs-and-benefits analysis will influence people's behavior when it comes to their sacred personal values, because they are processed in an entirely different brain system than incentives."

The research was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation. The results were published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.