Neuroscientists Discover Why Internet Pirates Don’t Feel Guilty

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Entertainment industry groups often equate illegal downloading to theft, an act that many people would feel guilty about carrying out. However, millions of downloaders simply do not feel any guilt when they transfer infringing content to their machines, so why is that? Scientists in Australia think they've found the answer.

guilt-brainEvery month millions of people download and share movies, TV shows, music, software and ebooks without obtaining permission from copyright holders.

In most countries that activity is illegal, meaning that huge numbers of Internet users are breaking the law on a daily basis.

While there are plenty of criminals around, most illegal downloaders don’t equate their hobby to being tantamount to theft, despite huge efforts by copyright holders to paint it so. To most it just doesn’t ‘feel’ the same and now scientists in Australia think they may have discovered why.

A three-stage study published by Robert Eres, a PhD student within the Social Neuroscience lab led by Dr Pascal Molenberghs at the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences, investigated why normally law-abiding people don’t have a problem with breaking laws which cover intangible items.

To that end the researchers investigated what happens inside the brains of people when they pirate intangible digital content versus stealing a physical item such as a handbag.

To begin, the researchers issued a questionnaire to discover whether people are more likely to “steal” non-tangible items (such as movie or music files) than their physical counterparts (DVDs and CDs). They found that their test subjects were indeed more likely to “steal” items that have no physical embodiment, no matter what their cost or associated risk of getting caught.

Next up the researchers carried out two sets of brain scans to try and understand why people are more happy to “steal” items that have no physical presence.

“The first brain imaging experiment revealed that people’s brains were much more active when trying to imagine intangible compared to tangible objects, which suggests people have more difficulty with representing intangible items,” the researchers write.


During the second set of scans, test subjects were asked to imagine themselves illegally or legally obtaining physical and digital versions of items such as movies, music, TV shows and software.

What the researchers found was that when imagining stealing an item, participants showed much more activation in the lateral orbital frontal cortex of their brains. Among other things, this part of the brain is associated with feelings of moral sensitivity and it was much more active when test subjects were thinking about stealing physical items than it was for intangible items such as digital files.


“The findings from the two brain imaging experiments suggest that people are processing the intangible and tangible objects very differently within their brains,” Mr Eres says.

Social Neuroscience lab head Dr Pascal Molenberghs says that this suggests that people have less problem breaking laws covering intangible items since they experience more difficulties imagining them so their brains feel less guilty when they “steal” them.

“Evolutionarily, we have interacted more with physical goods – particularly in respect to ownership so that is why we are hardwired to respect these more compared to intangible items such as ideas or software,” Dr Molenberghs says.

Finally, the researchers believe that the results of study have wider implications to other areas of online life, beyond Internet piracy.

“Overall, the data presented here suggests that the differences we see in moral behaviors (particularly concerning contexts of non-physical interactions; piracy, online surveillance and espionage) may be due to the differences in their neural representation and the discerning level of guilt felt for tangible items compared with intangible,” they conclude.


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