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). "

    Full-text · Chapter · Jan 2016
    • "54). Similarly, the regulation of emotions has been suggested to be critical for moral cognition and human morality (e.g., Ciaramelli, Muccioli, Làdavas, & di Pellegrino, 2007; Young & Koenigs, 2007), economic decision making (Koenigs & Tranel, 2007), the ability to generate counterfactual emotions such as regret (seen as fundamental " in regulating individual and social behavior " ; Camille et al., 2004 Camille et al., , p. 1169), and adaptive behavior in social environments (Larquet, Coricelli, Opolczynski, & Thibaut, 2010). In contrast, many authors see emotions as sand in the decision-making machinery responsible for turning out rational behavior. "
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    ABSTRACT: For centuries, decision scholars paid little attention to emotions: Decisions were modeled in normative and descriptive frameworks with little regard for affective processes. Recently, however, an “emotions revolution” has taken place, particularly in the neuroscientific study of decision making, putting emotional processes on an equal footing with cognitive ones. Yet disappointingly little theoretical progress has been made. The concepts and processes discussed often remain vague, and conclusions about the implications of emotions for rationality are contradictory and muddled. We discuss three complementary ways to move the neuroscientific study of emotion and decision making from agenda setting to theory building. The first is to use reverse inference as a hypothesis-discovery rather than a hypothesis-testing tool, unless its utility can be systematically quantified (e.g., through meta-analysis). The second is to capitalize on the conceptual inventory advanced by the behavioral science of emotions, testing those concepts and unveiling the underlying processes. The third is to model the interplay between emotions and decisions, harnessing existing cognitive frameworks of decision making and mapping emotions onto the postulated computational processes. To conclude, emotions (like cognitive strategies) are not rational or irrational per se: How (un)reasonable their influence is depends on their fit with the environment.
    No preview · Article · Jan 2016 · Perspectives on Psychological Science
    • "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.
    No preview · Article · Mar 2015 · Brain and Cognition
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