Individual differences in moral judgment
competence influence neural correlates
of socio-normative judgments
Kristin Prehn,1,2,3Isabell Wartenburger,1,4Katja Me ´riau,1,2,3Christina Scheibe,1,2,3Oliver R. Goodenough,5
Arno Villringer,1Elke van der Meer,2and Hauke R. Heekeren1,3,6
1Department of Neurology, Neuroscience Research Center, Berlin NeuroImaging Center, Charite ´ University Medicine Berlin,2Department
of Psychology, Humboldt-University, Berlin, Germany,3Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany,4Department of
Linguistics, University of Potsdam, Germany,5Vermont Law School, Vermont, USA, and6Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and
Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany
To investigate how individual differences in moral judgment competence are reflected in the human brain, we used event-related
functional magnetic resonance imaging, while 23 participants made either socio-normative or grammatical judgments.
Participants with lower moral judgment competence recruited the left ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the left posterior
superior temporal sulcus more than participants with greater competence in this domain when identifying social norm violations.
Moreover, moral judgment competence scores were inversely correlated with activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
(DLPFC) during socio-normative relative to grammatical judgments. Greater activity in right DLPFC in participants with lower
moral judgment competence indicates increased recruitment of rule-based knowledge and its controlled application during socio-
normative judgments. These data support current models of the neurocognition of morality according to which both emotional
and cognitive components play an important role.
Keywords: moral judgment; individual differences; moral judgment competence; right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; fMRI
Moral judgment can be defined as the evaluation of actions
with respect to norms and values established in a society
(such as not stealing or being an honest citizen). When
judging a behavior as morally good or bad, people refer to
their internal representations of these norms and values (i.e.
emotionally laden internal moral orientations or principles).
Psychological research on moral judgment has long been
dominated by a developmental approach investigating the
maturation of moral orientations and principles and empha-
sized the role of conscious and rational reasoning processes
(Kohlberg, 1969). Conversely, more recent models empha-
size the role of unconscious and intuitive processes in moral
judgment (Blair, 1995; Haidt, 2001, 2007; Hauser, 2006;
Hauser et al., 2007; Mikhail, 2007). The social intuitionist
model by Haidt (2001), for example, posits that fast and
automatic intuitions are the primary source of moral
judgments, whereas conscious deliberations are only used
to construct post hoc justifications for judgments that have
already occurred. Although there is some evidence support-
ing this view, others argue that immediate intuitions can also
be informed by conscious deliberation (Pizarro and Bloom,
2003) and that some moral principles are available to con-
scious reason while others are not (Cushman et al., 2006).
In addition to this current debate, neuropsychological
models claim that emotions are important to adapt behavior
to environmental demands (Damasio, 1996). In line with
this view, studies on patients with brain lesions showed that
damage to the prefrontal cortex (especially its ventromedial
and orbitofrontal portions) leads to deficits in social
behavior and moral decision making (Damasio et al., 1994;
Dimitrov et al., 1999; Koenigs and Tranel, 2007; Koenigs
et al., 2007).
Investigating the question of how moral judgments are
made in healthy subjects, a number of recent neuroimaging
studies identified a network of brain regions contributing to
moral cognition. Although these studies used different tasks
ranging from simple moral decisions (Moll et al., 2001,
2002a, b; Heekeren et al., 2003, 2005; Luo et al., 2006) to
complex dilemmatic moral judgments (Greene et al., 2001,
2004; Borg et al., 2006), the results are remarkably consistent
and revealed a functional network of brain regions including
the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), orbitofrontal
cortex (OFC),the temporalpoles,theamygdala,
Received 24 July 2007; Accepted 5 November 2007
Advance Access publication 3 December 2007
This study was financially supported by grants from the Gruter Institute of Law and Behavioral Research,
the Graduate Program Berlin (Scholarship Nachwuchsfoerderung), the BMBF (Berlin NeuroImaging Center,
BNIC) and the DFG [Emmy-Noether-Program (HE 3347/1-2)]. We gratefully acknowledge the help of S. Prehn
with programming the experiment. We thank C. Frith, E. Fehr, D. Knoch and G. Lind for comments on the
Correspondence should be addressed to Kristin Prehn, Neuroscience Research Center, Berlin NeuroImaging
Center & Charite ´ University Medicine Berlin, Campus Mitte, Charite ´platz 1, 10117 Berlin, Germany,
E-mail: email@example.com or Hauke R. Heekeren, Max Planck Institute for Human Development,
Lentzeallee 94, 14195 Berlin, Germany, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
doi:10.1093/scan/nsm037SCAN (2008) 3, 33–46
? TheAuthor (2007).Publishedby OxfordUniversityPress.For Permissions,pleaseemail:email@example.com
the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), and the posterior
superior temporal sulcus (PSTS), that is, brain regions which
are involved in emotional as well as in cognitive information
processing (see Greene and Haidt, 2002; Casebeer, 2003;
Casebeer and Churchland, 2003; Moll et al., 2003, 2005;
Goodenough and Prehn, 2004; Lieberman, 2007 for reviews).
Those studies have variously focused on the evaluation of
one’s own actions and whether actions are intentionally or
accidentally (Berthoz et al., 2002; Berthoz et al., 2006; Borg
et al., 2006), on the influence of bodily harm on neural
correlates of moral decision making (Heekeren et al., 2005),
on the regulation of emotional responses (Harenski and
Hamann, 2006), on the role of cognitive control and conflict
processing (Greene et al., 2004), and on the impact of
audience on moral judgments (Finger et al., 2006). In
summary, the results of the previous functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fMRI) studies support a theory of moral
judgment according to which both emotional and cognitive
components play an important role (Greene et al., 2004).
So far, neural correlates of moral decision making have
been looked at in group analyses and individual differences
in information processing have been treated as ‘noise’. The
results of these studies may therefore crucially depend on the
specific sample and their characteristics in information
A current approach (Lind, 2007) points out the role of
individual differences within the moral domain. Here,
morality is defined as consisting of two inseparable, yet
distinguishable aspects: (i) a person’s moral orientations and
principles and (ii) a person’s competence to act accordingly.
According to this theory, moral judgment competence is the
ability to apply moral orientations and principles in a
consistent and differentiated manner in varying social
situations. Thus, social norms and values represented as
affectively laden moral orientations are linked by means of
moral judgment competence with everyday behavior and
decision making. While most people commonly agree upon
moral orientations and principles that are considered to be
virtuous in their society, it is evident that people differ
considerably with respect to their moral judgment compe-
tence (Lind, 2007).
Thus, relating individual differences in moral judgment
competence to brain-imaging data derived from group
analyses may lead to a more comprehensive understanding
of the neural mechanisms involved in moral judgment.
In the present study, we therefore investigated how
individual differences in moral judgment competence are
reflected in changes in brain activity during a simple socio-
normative judgment task. We used event-related fMRI to
measure neural activity, while 23 participants made either
socio-normative or grammatical judgments and correlated
neural activity with individual scores in moral judgment
Based on the previous findings on the neural correlates of
moral decision making, we hypothesized that individual
differences in moral judgment competence correlate with
blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) activity in the
functional network of brain regions that contribute to
moral decision making.
(M)¼25.17, standard deviation (s.d.)¼6.56] participated
in this study. All participants were native German speakers,
right-handed as assessed using the Edinburgh Handedness
Inventory (Oldfield, 1971), with a similar educational level
(general qualification for university entrance), and without
any history of neurological or psychiatric diseases. We
included only female participants because gender differences
in the neural substrates of various aspects of cognition and
emotion processing have been reported (Piefke et al., 2005;
Cahill, 2006). The study was approved by the local ethics
committee of the Charite ´ University Medicine Berlin.
Subjects were paid for their participation and gave written
informed consent prior to investigation according to the
Declaration of Helsinki (1991).
healthyfemalesubjects [age: mean
Task and material
To investigate neural correlates of moral judgment, we
compared neural activity during a socio-normative judg-
ment task with neural activity during a grammatical
judgment task. We contrasted socio-normative judgments
with grammatical judgments, because both kinds of judg-
ments are rule-based.
During the socio-normative and the grammatical judg-
ment tasks pairs of sentences were presented. An introduc-
tory sentence was presented first, introducing the participant
to a specific situation. This introductory sentence was
followed by a second sentence, which could contain either
a violation of a social norm or a grammatical rule or no
violation of such, respectively (Table 1).
The participants were instructed to either decide whether
the action described in the second sentence was a social
norm violation or not (socio-normative judgment) or to
decide whether the second sentence was grammatically
correct or incorrect (grammatical judgment). To avoid
neural activity due to an automated detection of social norm
violations or grammatical errors as ‘confounding’ activity,
the sentences used in the socio-normative judgment task did
not contain grammatical errors and sentences used in the
grammatical judgment task did not contain social norm
violations. Thus, sentence material for the different tasks was
similar but not identical.
Responses were given by pressing one of two buttons of an
MRI compatible response device (labeled ‘yes’ or ‘no’), with
middle and index finger of the right hand as quickly and
correctly as possible. The assignment of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the
response finger was counterbalanced across participants.
34 SCAN (2008)K.Prehnetal.
A reading condition was used as a low-level baseline task
during which the participants had to read pairs of socio-
normatively and grammatically correct sentences without
making a decision. Here, participants also had to respond
with a button press after they finished reading the second
Each task comprised 48 trials (24 violations and 24 non-
violations of social norms, 24 violations and 24 non-
violations of grammatical rules and 48 pairs of sentences for
the reading condition). We thus used three tasks contain-
ing a total of five different conditions: socio-normative
judgment containing either a violation of a social norm
(NormJ/v) or not (NormJ/nv), grammatical judgment con-
taining either a violation of a grammatical rule (GramJ/v) or
not (GramJ/nv) and a reading task (Reading). Thus, the
factors ‘task’ (socio-normative vs grammatical judgment)
and ‘correctness’ (rule violation vs non-violation) were
independently varied in a 2?2 factorial design.
Sentence material was matched for number of syllables
and word frequencies (Baayen et al., 1993). Violations of
grammatical rules and social norms were simple and
unambiguous. To control for strong differences in emotional
arousal between the tasks, sentences were devoid of bodily
The sentence material has been validated in a previous
questionnaire-based investigation (n¼80), confirming that
all violations and non-violations of social norms could easily
be judged as correct or incorrect, respectively.
Prior to the experiment, participants completed a practice
session with similar stimulus material from a different
material set. Sentences were presented visually in a mixed
blocked/event-related design using a customized experimen-
tal control software (Presentation, Neurobehavioral Systems
Inc., Albany, CA, USA) running on a Microsoft Windows 98
The order of the experimental blocks (four blocks per
task) was counterbalanced across participants. Each block
was preceded by an instruction cue for 5s (which stated
‘Socio-normative judgment’, ‘Grammatical judgment’ or
‘Reading’, respectively) and followed by 12 pairs of
sentences. Each part (introductory sentence and second
sentence) was presented for 2s. Between introductory and
second sentence, a black screen was presented for 1.5s.
Trials were presented in a pseudo randomized order with
jittered interstimulus intervals (ISI) (minimum¼2s, max-
(www.surfer.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu). Between two trials par-
ticipants were instructed to fixate a cross presented foveally.
While brain activity was monitored using fMRI, response
times (RTs) and error rates were recorded. To assess potential
differences in emotional arousal between the tasks, we
simultaneously recorded skin conductance level (see below).
Immediately after the experiment participants rated all
sentences from the experiment regarding immorality,
emotionality (emotional arousal and valence), imagery,
and familiarity on seven-point rating scales from 0 (no
immorality, no emotional arousal, unpleasant, not imagin-
able, not personally familiar, respectively) to 6 (high
immorality, high emotional arousal, pleasant, highly imagin-
able, highly personally familiar, respectively) and completed
a paper- and pencil-version of the Moral Judgment Test
(MJT) (Lind, 1998, 2007; www.uni-konstanz.de/ag-moral/
mut/mjt-intro.htm; see subsequently)
Desirability Scale (SDS-17) (Sto ¨ber, 2001).
mean¼4.5s) optimizedusing OptSeq2
and the Social
Skin conductance data acquisition and analyses
As an indicator for emotional arousal, we continuously
recorded skin conductance level (in mS) during the
experiment at a sampling rate of 100Hz. We used a pair
of Ag/AgCl electrodes placed on the palm of the left hand
and a commercial skin conductance sampling device
(Psylab?, Contact Precisions Instruments, Boston, USA).
A double-shielded cable protected the skin conductance
signal from scanner-related artifacts. Skin conductance data
were analyzed using Matlab?7.0.4. (The MathWorks, Inc.,
MA, USA). Because we used short sentence material devoid
of bodily harm, we expected changes in skin conductance to
be very small. As recommended in the literature (Boucsein,
1992), we therefore only analyzed skin conductance level
during experimental blocks (normative judgment and
grammatical judgment) instead of event-related skin con-
ductance responses for each of the four conditions
(NormJ/v, NormJ/nv, GramJ/v, GramJ/nv, respectively).
For each experimental block data were detrended, baseline
corrected, and averaged across tasks (socio-normative
Table 1 Examples of sentence material
Socio-normative judgmentFirst sentence
A uses public transportation [A fa ¨hrt mit der S-Bahn]
He smashes the window [Er wirft das Fenster ein]
A uses public transportation [A fa ¨hrt mit der S-Bahn]
He looks out of the window [Er sieht aus dem Fenster]
Grammatical judgmentFirst sentence
B goes to a restaurant [B geht in ein Restaurant]
He order a starter [Er bestellen eine Vorspeise]
B goes to a restaurant [B geht in ein Restaurant]
He orders a starter [Er bestellt eine Vorspeise]
During both tasks, the first sentence of a trial introduced the participants to a specific situation. Half of the second sentences contained a violation of a social norm or
grammatical rule. After the appearance of the second sentence, participants were instructed to decide whether the action described in the second sentence was a social norm
violation or not, or whether the sentence was grammatically correct or incorrect.
judgment, grammatical judgment, and reading) and parti-
cipants (Boucsein, 1992). For technical reasons data were not
available for one subject.
Assessment of individual moral judgment competence
We assessed moral judgment competence with the MJT
(Lind, 1998, 2007; www.uni-konstanz.de/ag-moral/mut/
mjt-intro.htm; Lind and Wakenhut, 1980, 1985; Lind,
1982). The MJT confronts a participant with two complex
moral dilemmas. In one dilemma (the doctor dilemma), for
example, a woman had cancer with no hope for being cured.
She suffered terrible pain and begged the doctor to aid her in
committing medically assisted suicide. She said she could no
longer endure the pain and would be dead in a few weeks
anyway. The doctor complied with her wish. After
presentation of this short story, the participant indicates to
which degree he or she agrees or disagrees with the solution
chosen by the protagonist. After that, the participant is
presented with six arguments supporting (pro-arguments)
and six arguments rejecting (counter-arguments)
protagonist’s solution, which the participant has to rate
with regard to its acceptability on a nine-point rating scale
ranging from ?4 (highly unacceptable) to þ4 (highly
acceptable). Each argument represents a certain moral
orientation (according to the six Kohlbergian stages;
Kohlberg, 1969). An example for a low-level argument
against the doctor’s solution would be: ‘The doctor acted
wrongly because he could get himself into much trouble.
They have already punished others for doing the same thing’,
whereas the argument: ‘The doctor acted wrongly because
the protection of life is everyone’s highest moral obligation.
We have no clear moral criteria for distinguishing between
mercy-killing and murder’ represents a more elaborated
argument against the given solution.
A person’s moral orientation can be assessed by calculating
a certain moral orientation. In general, adult participants
prefermoreelaboratedarguments, butdifferintheir abilityof
applying this moral orientation consistently especially when
confronted with counter-arguments. The moral judgment
competence score (C-score, the MJT’s main score) is
calculated as an individual’s total response variation con-
cerning the underlying moral orientations of the given
arguments. It reflects the degree to which a participant’s
judgments about the pro- and counter-arguments are
consistent and thus assesses how consistently or, in Lind’s
terms, how competently a person applies a certain moral
orientation in the decision-making process independently of
whether arguments are in line with the personal opinion on a
particular issue or not. A highly competent person (indicated
by a high C-score close to 100) will consistently appreciate all
arguments referring to a certain socio-moral perspective,
irrespective of whether this argument is a pro- or counter-
argument. In contrast, a person with low moral judgment
competence will appreciate only arguments, which support
their own solution of the dilemma (only pro- or counter-
The concept of moral judgment competence is based on
Kohlberg who introduced the term moral judgment compe-
tence as ‘the capacity to make decisions and judgments,
which are moral (i.e. based on internal principles) and to act
in accordance with such judgments’ (Kohlberg, 1964, p. 425).
However, by defining moral judgment competence more
precisely, Lind’s approach clearly goes beyond what we may
ordinarily call ‘moral competence’ as well as the Kohlbergian
approach, which focused merely on moral orientations and
the level of reasoning (see Haidt, 2001 for a critique on the
To our knowledge the MJT is the only available test that
provides a measure of moral judgment competence and
differs from other instruments such as Kohlberg’s Moral
Judgment Interview (MJI) (Colby et al., 1987), the Defining
Issue Test (DIT) (Rest, 1974) or the Sociomoral Reflection
Measure (SRM) (Gibbs et al., 1992) that rather assess
individual moral attitudes. The MJT has proved to be a valid
and reliable psychometric test. For instance, moral judgment
competence has been associated with responsible and
democratic behavior (Heidbrink, 1985; Sprinthall et al.,
1994; Gross, 1997). Translated in many languages, it also has
been successfully used in scientific research (i.e. testing
theoretical assumptions on moral development) and in
evaluation of educational programs (Lind, 2006, 2007;
Lerkiatbundit et al., 2006).
fMRI data acquisition and analyses
We used a 1.5-T MRI scanner (Siemens Magnetom Vision,
Erlangen, Germany) with a standard head coil to acquire
whole brain MRI data. Head movement was minimized
using a vacuum pad. Axially oriented functional images
(T2?-weighted volumes) were acquired using standard
parameters (TE: 40ms; TR: 2500ms; flip angle: 908; FOV:
256mm; matrix: 64 ? 64; voxel size: 4?4?4.6mm; 26
slices). After acquisition of functional images, a sagittally
oriented T1-weighted volume (TE: 5ms; TR: 20ms; flip
angle: 308; matrix: 256?256; voxel size: 1?1?1mm)
and a proton-density-weighted volume (TE: 15ms; TR:
4350ms; flip angle: 1808; matrix: 252?256; voxel size:
1?1?4.6mm) were acquired for registration of the
MRI data were analyzed using a mixed effects approach
within the framework of the general linear model as
implemented in FMRI Expert Analysis Tool (FEAT), part
of FSL (FMRIB’s Software Library; www.fmrib.ox.ac.uk/fsl;
Smith et al., 2004) and AFNI (Analysis of Functional
NeuroImages; www.afni.nimh.nih.gov; Cox, 1996).
Prior to statistical analyses the following preprocessing
was applied: slice-time correction and motion correction
using MCFLIRT (Motion Correction using FMRIB’s Linear
Image Registration Tool; Jenkinson et al., 2002), non-brain
removal using BET (Brain Extraction Tool; Smith, 2002),
36 SCAN (2008) K.Prehnetal.
spatial smoothing using a Gaussian kernel of 12mm FWHM
(Full-Width Half-Maximum), and high pass temporal filter-
ing (Gaussian-weighted least squares straight line fitting with
sigma¼50.0s). Registration to high resolution and standard
images was done using FLIRT (FMRIB’s Linear Image
Registration Tool; Jenkinson and Smith, 2001).
Time series were modeled using event-related regressors
for all five conditions (NormJ/v, NormJ/nv, GramJ/v,
GramJ/nv, Reading) as well as the instruction periods and
convolved with a hemodynamic response function. The
instruction periods and the first introductory sentence of
each trial were modeled as regressors of no interest, whereas
the second sentences, which contained the experimental
manipulation were modeled as regressors of interest. To
control for differences in RTs between the conditions, we
used an additional regressor that was modeled using RTs
during each trial as a parametric modulation. Error trials
(5.7% in total) were also modeled as an additional regressor
of no interest. Contrast images (e.g. socio-normative
judgment vs grammatical judgment) were computed for
each subject and, after spatial normalization, transformed
into standard space (Jenkinson et al., 2002).
All group analyses were performed using the transformed
contrast images in a mixed effects model treating subjects as
random. In the higher level analyses, we report clusters of
maximally activated voxels that (i) survived statistical
thresholding at Z¼3.09 and (ii) had a cluster size of at
least 221mm3, resulting in a corrected mapwise P<0.05 as
determined using Monte Carlo simulations as implemented
in AFNI’s AlphaSim.
To determine in which brain regions task-related changes
in BOLD signal covaried with moral judgment competence,
we used the individual C-score as a covariate in the higher
level analysis. C-scores covaried with BOLD responses in the
right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) during socio-
normative judgments (see ‘Results’ section). To further
explore this effect, we split the sample into a ‘low’- and a
‘high’-moral judgment competence group using the median
value (MD¼37.36). Note that moral judgment competence
in our sample was higher than average compared to other
studies (see ‘Results’ section; Lind, 2007). Therefore, we use
the label ‘low’ purely in a statistical sense, which means
relatively low compared to the ‘high’ moral judgment group.
The resulting subgroups differed with respect to the C-score
[t(21)¼?7.31; P<0.001], but not with respect to RTs
[socio-normative judgments: t(21)¼0.594; P¼0.56; gram-
matical judgments: t(21)¼1.09; P¼0.29] or error rates
[socio-normative judgments: t(21)¼?0.92; P¼0.37; gram-
matical judgments: t(21)¼?0.05; P¼0.96].
We further investigated whether individual differences in
moral judgment competence also modulated BOLD activity
in brain regions contributing to moral decision making.
First, we identified regions of interest (ROIs) based on the
contrast socio-normative judgments vs grammatical judgments
(main effect of task) thresholded at Z¼3.09 (left VMPFC,
right temporal pole, left PSTS). The ROIs in the left OFC
and the left temporal pole were based on a map thresholded
at Z¼3.89. All ROIs were clusters with a size of at least 28
voxels (cluster size corresponding to a corrected cluster
threshold of P<0.05). Second, we correlated BOLD
responses in these regions with C-scores and performed a
multivariate analysis of variance (ANOVA) with the factor
group (‘low’ vs ‘high’ moral judgment competence).
Behavioral data, post hoc ratings and skin
Mean RTs (only for correctly answered trials) and error rates
were computed for each of the five experimental conditions
and averaged across participants (Table 2).
For RTs a 2?2 repeated measure ANOVA (n¼23) and
paired t-tests were performed. There was a significant main
effect for both factors: task [socio-normative judgment vs
grammatical judgment; F(1,22)¼40.88; P<0.001] and
correctness [social norm or grammatical rule violations vs
non-violations; F(1,22)¼16.01; P¼0.001], as well as their
interaction [F(1,22)¼6.81; P¼0.016]. That is, participants
responded faster during socio-normative judgments than
during grammatical judgments, and RTs were shorter when
participants identified a violation of a social norm or a
grammatical rule than a non-violation.
Paired t-tests for RTs revealed that there was neither a
significant difference in RTs between violations and non-
violations of social norms [t(22)¼?1.26; P¼0.22] nor
between violations of social norms and violations of
grammatical rules [t(22)¼?2.55; P¼0.02, only trend
because of adjusted ?¼0.008]. However, there was a
significant difference between non-violations of social
norms and grammatical rules [t(22)¼?6.81; P<0.001] as
well as between violations and non-violations of grammat-
ical rules [t(22)¼?3.8; P¼0.001]. Thus, the task by
correctness interaction appears to be driven by the parti-
cularly slow RTs when participants decided that grammatical
rules were not violated (Table 2).
Table 2 Response times and error rates for the five conditions
Mean response times in ms (s.d.)
Mean error rates (s.d.)
n¼23; NormJ/v, violations of social norms; NormJ/nv, non-violations of social norms; GramJ/v, violations of grammatical rules; GramJ/nv, non-violations of grammatical rules;
Reading, reading control task.
Error rates were low (5.7% in total). Most errors occurred
during identificationof grammatical
(GramJ/v; Table 2).
Post hoc ratings (n¼23) of the sentence material regarding
immorality, emotionality (emotional arousal and valence),
scanning session were compared using non-parametric
Wilcoxon tests. As expected, violations of social norms were
rated more immoral (Wilcoxon Z¼?4.14; P<0.001), more
emotionally arousing (Wilcoxon Z¼?4.37; P<0.001),
more unpleasant (Wilcoxon Z¼?3.90; P<0.001), less
personally familiar (Wilcoxon Z¼?3.97; P<0.001), and
less imaginable (Wilcoxon Z¼?3.47; P<0.001) than
non-violations of social norms (this was also confirmed by
the questionnaire-based pilot study of n¼80 subjects,
The continuously measured skin conductance level
showed no significant difference between socio-normative
[M¼0.03, s.d.¼0.35, n¼22, t(21)¼?1.11; P¼0.28].
Individual moral judgment competence
As described earlier, the MJT provides measures for both a
person’s moral orientation and the moral judgment compe-
tence. In line with the literature, the participants in our
sample did not differ from each other regarding their moral
orientation and showed most preferences for arguments
referring to advanced levels of moral reasoning (Kohlberg,
1969). However, their individual moral judgment compe-
tence (C-score) was normally distributed within our sample
Z¼0.5; P¼0.96). Compared to the mean reported in
other studies the mean C-score of 36.93 is relatively high
(Lind, 2007). That is, moral judgment competence on
average was well pronounced in our sample. However, the
standard deviation (s.d.¼16.67, maximum score¼62.74,
minimum score¼5.55) indicates that the range of C-scores
was also reasonably wide. Notably, C-scores were not
correlated with individual tendency to respond in a norm-
congruent way as measured with the SDS-17 (r¼?0.28;
In both experimental conditions, there was no correlation
between C-scores and RT (socio-normative judgments:
r¼?0.06; P¼0.78; grammatical judgments: r¼?0.16;
P¼0.46), error rates (socio-normative judgments: r¼0.34;
P¼0.12; grammatical judgments: r¼0.03; P¼0.88) and
skin conductancelevel (socio-normative
r¼?0.06; P¼0.80; grammatical judgments: r¼0.004;
P¼0.99). There was also no correlation between C-scores
and post hoc ratings of social norm violations (immorality:
r¼?0.12; P¼0.60; emotional arousal: r¼0.19; P¼0.40;
emotional valence: r¼?0.09; P¼0.69; familiarity: r¼0.10;
P¼0.66; imagery: r¼?0.15; P¼0.50).
Main effects (factors task and correctness) and
In the first step, we analyzed the fMRI data
in a mixed effects group analysis (n¼23) without taking
individual differences in moral judgment competence into
The comparison of socio-normative judgments vs grammat-
ical judgments (main effect of task) revealed greater BOLD
responses in the left VMPFC (BA 10/11), the left OFC (BA
11/47), the bilateral temporal poles (BA 21/38) and the left
PSTS (BA 39; Table 3, Figure 1).
The comparison of grammatical vs socio-normative judg-
ments revealed activations in the right VMPFC (BA 10), the
parietal lobes (BA 7/40), especially in the bilateral precuneus
(BA 7), and in the right middle occipital gyrus (BA 19,
A main effect of correctness (comparison of violations vs
non-violations of social norms and grammatical rules) was
only found in the left PSTS extending to the inferior parietal
lobule (IPL, BA 39/40; Table 3). In that region, greater
BOLD responses were found when participants identified
violations of social norms and grammatical rules, in contrast
to non-violations. Note that the left PSTS also showed a
main effect of task (more activation during socio-normative
than during grammatical judgments).
No brain region showed more activation during identi-
fication of non-violations compared to identification of
violations at the threshold levels described earlier.
The left precuneus (BA 7; Table 3) was the only brain
region that showed an interaction of the two factors task
(socio-normative judgments vs grammatical judgments) and
correctness (violations vs non-violations of a social norm or
grammatical rule). This region also showed a main effect of
task (grammatical vs socio-normative judgments) and
responded most during identification of violations in the
grammatical judgment task.
Covariation of BOLD responses with C-scores.
covaried significantly with changes in BOLD activity in right
DLPFC during socio-normative relative to grammatical
judgments [n¼23; BA 45/46; Montreal Neurological
Institute (MNI) coordinates: x¼50, y¼18, z¼20; Z-score
of local maximum¼3.60; 403 voxels; cf. Figure 2A], that is,
recruited the right DLPFC more (during socio-normative
relative to grammatical judgments) than those with greater
competence in this domain.
An ROI analysis confirmed that C-scores correlated
negatively with BOLD responses in the right DLPFC
during the socio-normative (r¼?0.453; P¼0.03), but did
not correlate during the grammatical judgment task
(r¼?0.04; P¼0.644, cf. Figure 2B). Notably, individual
moral judgment competence accounted for 20.5% of the
variance in right prefrontal BOLD responses during socio-
38 SCAN (2008)K.Prehnetal.
Furthermore, participants with lower moral judgment
competence (median split sample; n¼12) showed signifi-
cantly greater BOLD responses in the right DLPFC than
participants with higher moral judgment competence
(n¼11) during socio-normative judgments [comparison of
subgroups: t(21)¼2.91; P¼0.008]. During grammatical
judgments there was no significant difference between the
two subgroups [t(21)¼0.07; P¼0.94; Figure 2C]. There was
no covariation of C-scores with BOLD signal changes elicited
in other conditions or contrasts.
As reported earlier, C-scores were not correlated with RTs,
error rates, skin conductance level or post hoc ratings of
social norm violations and thus only covaried with changes
in BOLD activity in right DLPFC. Conversely, activity in
right DLPFC during socio-normative judgment was also not
(r¼?0.25; P¼0.25), skin conductance level (r¼?0.09;
P¼0.70) or post hoc ratings of social norm violations
r¼?0.12; P¼0.60; emotional valence: r¼0.03; P¼0.88;
familiarity: r¼?0.18; P¼0.42; imagery: r¼0.22; P¼0.34).
Thus, individual differences in BOLD activity in right
DLPFC cannot be explained by individual differences in
task difficulty, emotional arousal or personal experience of
social norm violations.
P¼0.43; emotional arousal:
As described earlier, the whole-brain analysis revealed
that BOLD activity only covaried with C-scores in right
DLPFC during socio-normative but not during grammatical
judgments. Moreover, we investigated whether individual
differences in moral judgment competence also modulate
BOLD activity in the cerebral network engaged in socio-
normative relative to grammatical judgments (main effect
of task). We found no significant correlation of C-scores
and BOLD responses in functional ROIs (brain regions
found to be associated with socio-normative judgments,
main effect of task) during the socio-normative judgment
task (left VMPFC: r¼?0.13; P¼0.57; left OFC: r¼?0.19;
P¼0.39; left temporal pole: r¼?0.05; P¼0.82; right
temporal pole: r¼?0.18; P¼0.41; left PSTS: r¼?0.20;
P¼0.29; left OFC: r¼?0.17; P¼0.43; left temporal pole:
P¼0.58; left PSTS: r¼?0.19; P¼0.39). However, using
a median-split approach an additional ROI analysis
revealed a main effect of the factor group (‘low’ vs ‘high’
moral judgment competence) on activity in the left
VMPFC [F(1,22)¼5.98; P¼0.023] and the left PSTS
[F(1,22)¼5.92; P¼0.024] specifically during identification
of social norm violations. That is, participants with
as wellasduring identification
Table 3 Anatomical locations and co-ordinates of activations
Anatomical region L/RBA Number of voxels in clusterZ score of local maximumMNI coordinates
Main effect of task
Socio-normative judgments>grammatical judgments
Medial frontal gyrus, VMPFC
Inferior frontal gyrus/temporal gyrus
Inferior frontal gyrus, OFC
Middle temporal gyrus, temporal pole
Inferior temporal gyrus, temporal pole
Middle temporal gyrus, temporal pole
Posterior superior temporal sulcus (PSTS)
Grammatical judgments>socio-normative judgments
Medial frontal gyrus, VMPFC
Superior parietal lobes
Inferior parietal lobe
Middle occipital gyrus
R 10323.45 32 700
Main effect of correctness
Violations of social norms and grammatical rules>non-violations
Posterior superior temporal sulcus (PSTS)/Inferior parietal lobule (IPL)
Task by correctness interaction
L 39/4030 3.38
Mixed effects analysis (n¼23) of main effects and interaction. See text for a detailed description.
Note: Clusters of maximally activated voxels that (i) survived statistical thresholding at Z¼3.09 (P<0.001) and (ii) had a cluster size of at least 221mm3(¼28 voxels), resulting
in a corrected mapwise P<0.05.
BA, Brodmann area; MNI coordinates, coordinates referring to the standard brain of the Montreal Neurological Institute; OFC, orbitofrontal cortex; VMPFC, ventromedial prefrontal
Individualdifferencesinmoraljudgmentcompetence SCAN (2008)39
Fig. 1 Main effect of task. Left panel: Brain regions showing a main effect of task (socio-normative judgment vs grammatical judgment). Yellow-red regions responded more
during socio-normative than during grammatical judgments, blue regions showed the reverse pattern (greater responses during grammatical than during socio-normative
judgments). Results of group analysis (mixed effects analysis, n¼23) thresholded at Z¼3.09. Right panel: BOLD responses [mean and standard error of the mean in arbitrary
units (a.u.), n¼23] during the five conditions (NormJ/v¼violations of social norms, NormJ/nv¼non-violations of social norms, GramJ/v¼violations of grammatical rules,
GramJ/nv¼non-violations of grammatical rules, Reading¼reading control task) in these regions. Analyses of BOLD responses in left VMPFC, right temporal pole and left PSTS
were based on functional ROIs thresholded at Z¼3.09. Analyses in left OFC and left temporal pole were based on functional ROIs thresholded at Z¼3.89. All ROIs were clusters
with a size of at least 28 voxels (cluster size corresponding to a corrected cluster threshold of P<0.05).
40 SCAN (2008)K.Prehnetal.
lower moral judgment competence showed greater activity
in these regions (Figure 3).
In the present study, we investigated how individual
differences in moral judgment competence are reflected in
the brain during a simple socio-normative judgment task.
We replicated previous findings on a cerebral network
involved in moral cognition. Activity in this network was
modulated by individual differences in moral judgment
competence. In particular, participants with lower moral
judgment competence showed greater BOLD responses in
the left VMPFC and the left PSTS during identification of
social norm violations than participants with higher moral
judgment competence. Moreover, we found that moral
Fig. 2 Moral judgment competence reflected in BOLD responses in right DLPFC. (A) Covariation of C-scores with BOLD responses in right DLPFC during socio-normative vs
grammatical judgments [activation from higher level analysis thresholded at Z¼3.09 (P<0.05, corrected)]. (B) Left panel: Negative correlation of C-scores and BOLD responses
in right DLPFC during socio-normative judgments [r¼?0.45; P¼0.03; C-scores plotted against BOLD responses in arbitrary units (a.u.) with regression line and 95% confidence
limits]. Right panel: The subgroup with lower moral judgment competence (median split, n¼12) showed significantly greater activation in right DLPFC (mean and standard error
of the mean) during socio-normative judgments than the subgroup with greater moral judgment competence (n¼11). (C) Left panel: No correlation of C-scores and BOLD
responses in right DLPFC during grammatical judgments [r¼?0.04; P¼0.64; C-scores plotted against BOLD responses in arbitrary units (a.u.) with regression line and 95%
confidence limits]. Right panel: No difference in BOLD responses (mean and standard error of the mean) between the two subgroups during grammatical judgments.
Individualdifferencesinmoraljudgmentcompetence SCAN (2008)41
judgment competence was inversely correlated with neural
activity in the right DLPFC during socio-normative relative
to grammatical judgments.
A cortical network activated during moral judgments
Contrasting activity during socio-normative judgments with
grammatical judgments revealed activation in the left
VMPFC, the left OFC, the temporal poles and the left
PSTS. These results are in line with previous fMRI studies,
which identified a similar functional cerebral network
contributing to various moral or socio-normative judgment
tasks, including simple moral decisions as well as complex
dilemmatic moral judgments (see Greene and Haidt, 2002;
Casebeer, 2003; Casebeer and Churchland, 2003; Moll et al.,
2003, 2005; Goodenough and Prehn, 2004; Lieberman, 2007
Activity in the VMPFC, the OFC, the temporal poles and
the PSTS has often been associated with social cognition,
especially during mentalizing or theory of mind tasks
(Gallagher and Frith, 2003; Frith and Frith, 2006; Saxe,
2006). In the present experiment, participants had to decide
whether an action described in the sentence represented a
social norm violation or not. The social norm violations
used were unambiguous and neither perspective taking
nor reading the mental states or intentions of the agent
was required. However, it is very likely that participants
routinely reflect on their subjective experiences and put
themselves into the position of the agent when judging
a behavior as good or bad (Amodio and Frith, 2006).
In particular, activity in the temporal poles has recently been
associated with providing abstract concepts describing a
social behavior (like virtuous or guilty; Zahn et al., 2007).
Other studies also report on activations in some more
regions involved in emotion processing such as the PCC
(Greene et al., 2001, 2004; Moll et al., 2002a, b; Heekeren
et al., 2005; Harenski and Hamann, 2006) and the amygdala
(Moll et al., 2002a, b; Berthoz et al., 2006; Harenski and
Hamann, 2006) during moral judgment tasks. Supposedly,
the lack of activation in those regions associated with
emotional processing in our study is related to the fact that
our material was less emotionally charged than the material
used in other studies (i.e. sentences devoid of bodily harm vs
complex dilemmas, often involving harm or even death).
Social norm violations were rated more emotionally
However, regarding the main effect of task (social-normative
vs grammatical judgments) skin conductance level data
simultaneously recorded in the fMRI scanner confirmed that
there was no significant difference at least in physical arousal
during experimental blocks of socio-normative judgment
compared to blocks of grammatical judgment.
Neural activity during grammatical judgments
The right VMPFC, the superior parietal lobes (namely the
precuneus), the IPL, and the middle occipital gyrus showed
greater responses during grammatical judgments as com-
pared to socio-normative judgments. Enhanced activity in
these brain regions might reflect the attention demanding
visual search for features representing grammatical errors
(cf. Coull et al., 1998; Hopfinger et al., 2000; Liu et al., 2003
for the involvement of a right fronto-parietal network in
sustained selective attention). Higher processing demands
during the grammatical judgment task are also indicated by
longer RTs during grammatical judgments as compared to
socio-normative judgments. Interestingly, the left precuneus
responded most during identification of violations during
the grammatical judgment task, the condition in which RTs
were shorter while more errors occurred (indicating a speed-
Neural correlates of individual differences
in moral judgment competence
Individual differences modulated neural activity in the left
VMPFC and the left PSTS specifically during the identifica-
tion of social norm violations (median split analysis) and in
the right DLPFC during socio-normative judgments in
general (violations and non-violations of social norms) but
not during grammatical judgments (covariance analysis).
Participants with lower moral judgment competence showed
Fig. 3 Moral judgment competence modulates BOLD responses in regions involved in
socio-normative judgments. BOLD responses in (A) left VMPFC and (B) left PSTS
during identification of social norm violations [activation from higher level analysis
thresholded at Z¼3.09 (P<0.05, corrected) based on functional ROIs thresholded at
Z¼3.09]. Participants with lower moral judgment competence (median split,
n¼12) showed significantly greater activation (mean and standard error of the
mean) than participants with higher moral judgment competence (n¼11).
42SCAN (2008) K.Prehnetal.
significantly more activity in these brain regions than
participants with greater moral judgment competence.
In the literature, greater neural activity in participants
with lower competence in a certain cognitive task has been
associated with compensation (Kosslyn et al., 1996; Rypma
et al., 2006). In detail, efficiency theories suggest that
individuals differ in the efficiency with which fundamental
cognitive operations are performed. According to these
theories, efficient individuals are able to perform funda-
mental cognitive operations faster than inefficient individ-
uals and with minimized resource allocation (Vernon, 1983).
Increased activation in individuals with lower competence
thus may be due to the increased recruitment of cognitive
resources. In the present study, C-scores were not correlated
with RTs or error rates and the median split samples did not
differ with regard to these parameters. This may be due to
the fact that the task used in the present experiment was very
easy and unambiguous and RTs were generally shorter than
in other studies using more complex and dilemmatic moral
judgment tasks (Greene et al., 2001, 2004). Additionally,
although the range of moral judgment scores in our sample
was reasonably wide, participants in our sample had a well-
pronounced moral judgment competence compared to
participants in other studies (Lind, 2007), and the label
‘low moral judgment competence’ was rather used in a
statistical sense than to indicate deficits in moral judgment
Studies on patients with brain lesions provided first
evidence that damage to the prefrontal cortex (especially its
ventromedial and orbitofrontal portions) leads to deficits in
social behavior and moral decision making (Damasio et al.,
1994; Dimitrov et al., 1999). The VMPFC is recruited when
we have to understand other people’s behavior in terms of
their intentions or mental states (Berthoz et al., 2002; Frith
and Frith, 2006). The orbital part of the VMPFC in
particular (as well as the orbitofrontal cortex in general)
has been associated with representing the expected value of
possible outcomes of a behavior with respect to rewards and
punishments (Camille et al., 2004; Walton et al., 2004;
Amodio and Frith, 2006; Luo et al., 2006). Luo et al. (2006),
for instance, manipulated the intensity of moral transgres-
sions and showed increased neural activity in VMPFC and
amygdala in response to high relative to low legal and illegal
stimuli. Activity in VMPFC, thus, is apparently associated
with both positively and negatively valenced information on
the expected reinforcement (Luo et al., 2006). Additionally,
the VMPFC seems to play an important role in the
generation of social emotions such as compassion, shame,
and guilt that are closely related with moral values when
confronted with social norm violations (Koenigs and Tranel,
2007; Koenigs et al., 2007). With respect to moral judgment
competence, it should be noted that patients with VMPFC
lesions acquired in adulthood display irresponsible and
inappropriate social behavior but normal basic cognitive
abilities and a preserved knowledge about the accepted
standards of moral behavior (Saver and Damasio, 1991;
Anderson et al., 1999). This might indicate a deficit in the
ability to consistently apply moral orientations; however,
none of these studies explicitly investigated moral judgment
Activity in the PSTS has been reported in almost all
functional imaging studies investigating moral judgment and
decision making (Greene et al., 2001, 2004; Moll et al., 2001,
2002a, b; Berthoz et al., 2002; Heekeren et al., 2003, 2005;
Borg et al., 2006; Finger et al., 2006; Harenski and Hamann,
2006). Although the precise function of the PSTS remains
unclear, this region seems to play a central role in
representing socially significant information from different
domains/modalities. For instance, the PSTS contributes to
multisensory integration (Beauchamp et al., 2004), to the
processing of biological motion cues (Beauchamp et al.,
2002, 2003; Schultz et al., 2005) and to the detection and
analysis of goals and intentions of another person’s behavior
(Schultz et al., 2004; Young et al., 2007). The important role
of PSTS in social cognition and the processing of another
person’s beliefs or mental states is also supported by lesion
studies (Samson et al., 2004).
In our study, activity in the left PSTS (extending to the left
IPL) also showed a main effect of correctness (comparison of
violations vs non-violations of social norms and grammatical
rules, respectively). Activity in PSTS has also been found
when participants were presented with salient or task-
relevant and attention-attracting events (Downar et al., 2002;
Kincade et al., 2005) and thus activity in left PSTS may
reflect the detection of violations of socio-normative as well
as grammatical rules (violations of any kind).
Moral judgment competence correlated with changes in
BOLD activity in right DLPFC during socio-normative
judgments but not during grammatical judgments. During
socio-normative judgments, participants with comparably
low moral judgment competence recruited the right DLPFC
more than those with greater competence in this domain.
Notably, individual moral judgment competence accounted
for 20.5% of the variance in right prefrontal activity.
As described in detail earlier, moral judgment competence
represents the ability to apply a moral orientation in a
consistent and differentiated manner in varying social
situations (Lind, 2007). Increased activity in right DLPFC
thus can be interpreted as higher processing demand due to
the application of knowledge about social norms and rules
during the decision-making process. More evidence for a
role of the DLPFC in moral judgment and the implementa-
tion of moral behavior comes from a study using repetitive
transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). Here, a disrup-
tion of the right, but not the left DLPFC reduces the subject’s
willingness to reject their partner’s intentionally unfair
monetary offers. Importantly, subjects are still able to
judge the unfair offers as unfair, which indicates that the
right DLPFC plays a key role especially in the implementation
of fairness-related behaviors (Knoch et al., 2006). That rTMS
study thus provides complementary evidence to our study in
showing that the right DLPFC is crucial for the execution of
normatively appropriate behavior.
Greater responses in right DLPFC may also be interpreted
in the context of two current theoretical models describing
how the PFC controls complex behavior that are not
mutually exclusive. First, the PFC is eminent in the
implementation of control processes, task monitoring, and
inhibitory control during rule-based response selection
(Miller, 2000; Bunge, 2004). In line with this functional
account of PFC function, an fMRI study investigating
dilemmatic moral judgments showed activation of the
DLPFC when control processes were needed to override
prepotent emotional responses to make a utilitarian decision
(e.g. smothering a crying baby to save more lives; Greene
et al., 2004) or to resist temptations (Knoch and Fehr, 2007).
An fMRI study investigating the impact of interracial
contact on executive functions, moreover, showed that
participants with high scores on subtle measures of racial
bias showed increased activity in right DLPFC when
presentedwith black faces
Increased activity in the right DLPFC in these participants
was interpreted as additional effort to suppress an automatic
activation of negative stereotypes because these participants
also endorse egalitarian values and following contemporary
societal norms it is unacceptable to show racial prejudices
against black people. Second, the structured-event-complex
framework model explains activity in the PFC as reflecting
function-specific processes. According to this representa-
tional account, a structured-event-complex (such as going to
a restaurant or giving a dinner party) represents knowledge
abstracted across a number of similar events (including
temporal organizations, social rules or special features).
This event-sequence knowledge is assumed to be stored
in long-term memory and guides the perception and
Wood and Grafman, 2003). Activity in right DLPFC may
thus indicate an increased recruitment of the rule-based
event knowledge in participants with lower moral judgment
It should be noted that it is presently unclear, how exactly
moral judgment competence as measured by the MJT maps
on other cognitive abilities such as general intelligence.
Future studies will have to address this question.
behavior (Grafman, 1995;
By using an easy and unambiguous socio-normative
judgment task, we replicated the findings on the functional
network related to moral cognition and provide the first
evidence that neural activity in this network is modulated by
individual differences in moral judgment competence.
recruited the left VMPFC and the left PSTS more than
participants with greater competence when identifying social
norm violations. Because increased activation in individuals
with lower moral judgment competence may be due to the
increased recruitment of mental resources, we interpret
increased activity in VMPFC and PSTS as increased
involvement of social cognitive and emotional processes
such as mentalizing or estimating the value of possible
outcomes of a behavior and the experience of moral
emotions during moral judgment. Moreover, we found
that moral judgment competence score was inversely
correlated with activity in the right DLPFC during socio-
normative relative to grammatical judgments, indicating
higher processing demand due to the controlled application
of rule-based knowledgeduring
Thus, our data are in line with current models of the
neurocognition of morality according to which both
emotional and cognitive components play an important
role. However, the question is not only which processes are
involved in moral judgment, but also how well a decision
maker is able to integrate these different processes
(e.g. emotional responses with rational reasoning processes)
sensitive to the context of the particular social situation he
or she faces (Talmi and Frith, 2007). This view highlights
the role of individual differences, for instance, in moral
judgment competence, which is defined as the ability
to apply a certain moral orientation in a consistent
and differentiated manner in varying social situations
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