The neurobiology of moral behavior: Review and neuropsychiatric implications

Department of Neurology, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, USA.
CNS spectrums (Impact Factor: 2.71). 11/2009; 14(11):608-20.
Source: PubMed


Morality may be innate to the human brain. This review examines the neurobiological evidence from research involving functional magnetic resonance imaging of normal subjects, developmental sociopathy, acquired sociopathy from brain lesions, and frontotemporal dementia. These studies indicate a "neuromoral" network for responding to moral dilemmas centered in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and its connections, particularly on the right. The neurobiological evidence indicates the existence of automatic "prosocial" mechanisms for identification with others that are part of the moral brain. Patients with disorders involving this moral network have attenuated emotional reactions to the possibility of harming others and may perform sociopathic acts. The existence of this neuromoral system has major clinical implications for the management of patients with dysmoral behavior from brain disorders and for forensic neuropsychiatry.

1 Follower
12 Reads
  • Source
    • "Meta-analysis of brain imaging studies show that moral cognition recruits a relatively small subset of the brain areas (as compared to the theory of mind network) involved in empathy (Bzdok et al., 2012) and damage to these areas results in aberrant empathic skills and moral judgements. Those patient populations with developmental-and adult-onset ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC, a brain region essential for proper emotional processing) lesion and frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD, which also results in deterioration of prefrontal cortex) are well known for their emotional and empathic dysfunctions (e.g., see Mendez, 2009). Both of these populations show elevated levels of utilitarian moral judgements on personal moral dilemmas (Chiong et al., 2013; Ciaramelli, Muccioli, Làdavas, & di Pellegrino , 2007; Gleichgerrcht, Torralva, Roca, Pose, & Manes, 2011; Koenigs et al., 2007; Mendez, Anderson , & Shapira, 2005; Schroeter, Bzdok, Eickhoff, & Neumann, 2014; Taber-Thomas et al., 2014) as compared to brain-damaged and neurotypical control populations. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: Although past research has established that the utilitarian bias (increased willingness to agree to personally kill someone for the greater good) in psychopathy on moral dilemmas stems from weaker negative affect at the prospect of harming others due to reduced harm aversion, it remains to be seen if this is owing to reduced aversion to witnessing harmful outcomes (outcome aversion) or performing harmful actions (action aversion). In this study, we show that trait psychopathy is associated with both reduced outcome and action aversion and that only action aversion negatively mediates the influence of trait psychopathy on utilitarian moral judgement. Thus, the increased tendency in psychopathy to make utilitarian moral judgements is in part due to reduced aversion to carrying out harmful actions.
    Journal of Cognitive Psychology 02/2015; 27(3):349-366. DOI:10.1080/20445911.2015.1004334 · 1.20 Impact Factor
  • Source
    • "Previous neuroimaging investigations using functional MRI in healthy individuals converge with lesion studies in neurological patients to identify brain mechanisms implicated in moral thinking. There is now solid evidence for the involvement of a network of regions, which include the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), temporoparietal junction (TPJ), amygdala, and insula (e.g., Buckholtz & Marois, 2012; Decety, Michalska, & Kinzler, 2012; Fumagalli & Priori, 2012; Mendez, 2009; Moll et al., 2007; Young & Dungan, 2012). Moreover, it is clear that these regions are not specific to the domain of morality. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: Morality is a pervasive aspect of human nature across all cultures, and neuroscience investigations are necessary for identifying what computational mechanisms underpin moral cognition. The current study used high-density ERPs to examine how moral evaluations are mediated by automatic and controlled processes as well as how quickly information and causal-intentional representations can be extracted when viewing morally laden behavior. The study also explored the extent to which individual dispositions in affective and cognitive empathy as well as justice sensitivity influence the encoding of moral valence when healthy participants make moral judgments about prosocial (interpersonal assistance) and antisocial (interpersonal harm) actions. Moral judgment differences were reflected in differential amplitudes for components associated with cognitive appraisal (LPP) as well as early components associated with emotional salience (N1 and N2). Moreover, source estimation was performed to indicate potential neural generators. A posterior-to-anterior shift was observed, with current density peaks first in right inferior parietal cortex (at the temporoparietal junction), then later in medial prefrontal cortex. Cognitive empathy scores predicted behavioral ratings of blame as well as differential amplitudes in LPP and component activity at posterior sites. Overall, this study offers important insights into the temporal unfolding of moral evaluations, including when in time individual differences in empathy influence neural encoding of moral valence.
    Neuropsychologia 06/2014; 60(1). DOI:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.05.022 · 3.30 Impact Factor
  • Source
    • "Frontotemporal dementia, along with VMPFC brain lesions, has been classified as " acquired sociopathy . " These patients solve moral dilemmas in a logical, cold and calculating fashion, favoring utilitarian responses (Gleichgerrcht et al., 2010; Mendez and Shapira, 2009). Early FTD affects the VMPFC more than the DLPFC, thus biasing moral judgments away from emotionally based intuitive processes (see Mendez, 2009 for a review). "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: Background: Addiction has been shown to be associated with the endorsement of utilitarian moral judgments. Ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) dysfunction may explain these findings. Methods: 100 subjects were recruited: 25 polysubstance dependent patients, 25 alcohol dependent patients, 25 patients with major depressive disorders, and 25 normal controls. Subjects were assessed with a battery of 24 moral dilemmas: 8 impersonal dilemmas (no physical contact involved); 8 personal pareto (direct action that does not make the harmed individual worse off) and 8 personal non-pareto (direct action that does make the harmed individual worse off). The Iowa Gambling Task was used to document a possible connection between VMPFC dysfunction and responses to the moral dilemmas. Results: Polysubstance dependent patients endorsed more utilitarian choices than controls on all types of dilemmas and more than depressed patients on impersonal and personal pareto dilemmas. Alcohol dependent patients had intermediate results between polysubstance dependent patients and controls but these differences were not significant. All patients showed significantly poorer performance compared to controls on the Iowa Gambling Task, but there was no significant association between Iowa Gambling Tasks scores and moral dilemma choices. Conclusion: Polysubstance dependent patients made more utilitarian choices when responding to moral dilemmas than depressed patients and normal controls, while alcoholic patients showed intermediate results. The absence of correlation between performance on the Iowa Gambling Task and the number of more utilitarian choices indicates that moral dilemma and decision making under uncertainty tap into separate mechanisms.
    Drug and alcohol dependence 03/2013; 132(3). DOI:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2013.03.005 · 3.42 Impact Factor
Show more


12 Reads
Available from