Selective Deficit in Personal Moral Judgment Following Damage to Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex

Dipartimento di Psicologia, Università di Bologna, Bologna, Italy, and Centro Studi e Ricerche di Neuroscienze Cognitive, Cesena, Italy.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Impact Factor: 7.37). 07/2007; 2(2):84-92. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsm001
Source: PubMed


Recent fMRI evidence has detected increased medial prefrontal activation during contemplation of personal moral dilemmas compared to impersonal ones, which suggests that this cortical region plays a role in personal moral judgment. However, functional imaging results cannot definitively establish that a brain area is necessary for a particular cognitive process. This requires evidence from lesion techniques, such as studies of human patients with focal brain damage. Here, we tested 7 patients with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and 12 healthy individuals in personal moral dilemmas, impersonal moral dilemmas and non-moral dilemmas. Compared to normal controls, patients were more willing to judge personal moral violations as acceptable behaviors in personal moral dilemmas, and they did so more quickly. In contrast, their performance in impersonal and non-moral dilemmas was comparable to that of controls. These results indicate that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is necessary to oppose personal moral violations, possibly by mediating anticipatory, self-focused, emotional reactions that may exert strong influence on moral choice and behavior.

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Available from: Giuseppe Di Pellegrino, Sep 01, 2015
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    • "The hypothesized link between deontological judgments and automatic emotional responses is supported by studies showing increased activation of brain areas associated with emotional processes when participants considered personal moral dilemmas involving direct contact with the victim (Greene et al., 2001) and when participants made deontological judgments on difficult moral dilemmas (Greene, Nystrom, Engell, Darley, & Cohen, 2004). Participants made fewer deontological judgments when emotional distance from victims was increased (Petrinovich, O'Neill, & Jorgensen, 1993), after a humorous video clip that presumably reduced negative affect by trivializing the harm dealt to victims (Valdesolo & DeSteno, 2006), or when they suffered damage to brain regions associated with emotional processing (Ciaramelli, Muccioli, Ladavas, & di Pellegrino, 2007; Koenigs et al., 2007; Mendez, Anderson, & Shapira, 2005). Conversely, participants made more deontological judgments when imagining harm in vivid detail (Bartels, 2008; Petrinovich & O'Neill, 1996), while experiencing physiological stress (Starcke, Ludwig, & Brand, 2012), and after listening to a morally uplifting story that evoked warm feelings (Strohminger, Lewis, & Meyer, 2011). "
    Social psychology of morality, Edited by Joseph Forgas, Lee Jussim, Paul Van Lange, 01/2016; Psychology Press.
    • "On the other hand, Trolley-type dilemmas were found to elicit greater activation in brain areas involved in working memory and cognitive control (i.e., dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, inferior parietal lobule) as compared to Footbridge-type dilemmas (Borg et al., 2006; Greene, Nystrom, Engell, Darley, & Cohen, 2004; Greene et al., 2001). Moreover, neuropsychological studies on brain-damaged populations consistently showed an atypically high number of utilitarian responses to Footbridge-type dilemmas in patients with focal lesions to the ventromedial prefrontal areas (Ciaramelli, Muccioli, Ladavas, & di Pellegrino, 2007; Koenigs et al., 2007) and in patients with deterioration of prefrontal and anterior temporal areas (Mendez, Anderson, & Shapira, 2005), suggesting a causal role played by brain areas related to emotional processing in rejecting utilitarian resolutions. On the electrophysiological level, a recent event-related potential (ERP) study (Sarlo et al., 2012) provided further support for the dual process model by finding a larger frontal early positivity (i.e., P260) for Footbridge-type than for Trolley-type dilemmas, with its amplitude positively correlating with the unpleasantness experienced during decision-making. "
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    ABSTRACT: In any modern society killing is regarded as a severe violation of the legal codes that is subjected to penal judgment. Therefore, it is likely that people take legal consequences into account when deciding about the hypothetical killing of one person in classic moral dilemmas, with legal concerns contributing to decision-making. In particular, by differing for the degree of intentionality and emotional salience, Footbridge- and Trolley-type dilemmas might promote differential assignment of blame and punishment while implicating the same severity of harm. The present study was aimed at comparing the neural activity, subjective emotional reactions, and behavioral choices in two groups of participants who either took (Legal group) or did not take (No Legal group) legal consequences into account when deciding on Footbridge-type and Trolley-type moral dilemmas. Stimulus- and response-locked ERPs were measured to investigate the neural activity underlying two separate phases of the decision process. No difference in behavioral choices was found between groups. However, the No Legal group reported greater overall emotional impact, associated with lower preparation for action, suggesting greater conflict between alternative motor responses representing the different decision choices. In contrast, the Legal group showed an overall dampened affective experience during decision-making associated with greater overall action readiness and intention to act, reflecting lower conflict in responding. On these bases, we suggest that in moral dilemmas legal consequences of actions provide a sort of reference point on which people can rely to support a decision, independent of dilemma type.
    Brain and Cognition 03/2015; 94. DOI:10.1016/j.bandc.2015.01.004 · 2.48 Impact Factor
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    • "Several complementary approaches supported the idea that emotions enhance deontological decisions in moral dilemmas. Neuropsychological studies reported that patients with focal lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with emotional biases in decision making under uncertainty (Bechara, Damasio, & Damasio, 2000), increasingly endorse utilitarian decisions (Ciaramelli, Muccioli, Làdavas, & di Pellegrino, 2007; Koenigs et al., 2007; Martins, Esteves, & Reis, 2012; Moretto, Làdavas, Mattioli, & di Pellegrino, 2010). Relatively high levels of utilitarian decisions were also observed in psychopathy (Cima, Tonnaer, & Hauser, 2010), a personality disorder that is characterized by emotional callousness. "
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    ABSTRACT: In the last decades, the involvement of emotions in moral decision making was investigated using moral dilemmas in healthy volunteers, neuropsychological and psychiatric patients. Recent research characterized emotional experience in moral dilemmas and its association with deontological decisions. Moreover, theories debated the roles of emotion and reasoning in moral decision making and suggested that emotion regulation may be crucial in overriding emotion-driven deontological biases. After briefly introducing the reader to moral dilemma research and current perspectives on emotion and emotion-cognition interactions in this area, the present chapter reviews emerging evidence for emotion regulation in moral decision making. Inspired by recent advances in the field of emotion regulation, this chapter also highlights several avenues for future research on emotion regulation in moral psychology.
    Handbook on Emotion Regulation: Processes, Cognitive Effects and Social Consequences, Edited by Madeline L. Bryant, 02/2015: chapter Bridging cognition and emotion in moral decision making: Role of emotion regulation: pages in press; Nova Science., ISBN: 978-1-63482-361-6
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