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.

Full-text preview

Available from:
  • 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.
    Full-text · Article · Feb 2015 · Journal of Cognitive Psychology
    • "What are the contenders for the types of intuitions that normative ethics in general, and moral theories in particular , tap into? Intuitions of a first kind, favored by virtue theory, focus on the character—the habits, intentions, and motives of the agent (e.g., is this something appropriate for a virtuous person?). 9 One hypothesis with some corroborating evidence in the empirical literature is that intuitions of this kind are facilitated by the cognitive/neural mechanisms of cognitive empathy and " Theory of Mind " in moral judgment (e.g., Young et al. 2007; Young et al. 2010) and behavior (Mendez 2009). Diverse developments in cognitive neuroscience (e.g., computational cognitive function modeling, neurochemistry of social interactions) have even led some (Casebeer 2003; Churchland 2009; 2011) to claim that neuroscience proves that moral intuitions are more in line with Aristotelian than Kantian or Millian moral psychology , and that virtue ethics is therefore superior to other ethical theories. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: This article proposes a novel integrative approach to moral judgment and a related model that could explain how unconscious heuristic processes are transformed into consciously accessible moral intuitions. Different hypothetical cases have been tested empirically to evoke moral intuitions that support principles from competing moral theories. We define and analyze the types of intuitions that moral theories and studies capture: those focusing on agents (A), deeds (D), and consequences (C). The integrative ADC approach uses the heuristic principle of “attribute substitution” to explain how people make intuitive judgments. The target attributes of moral judgments are moral blameworthiness and praiseworthiness, which are substituted with more accessible and computable information about an agent's virtues and vices, right/wrong deeds, and good/bad consequences. The processes computing this information are unconscious and inaccessible, and therefore explaining how they provide input for moral intuitions is a key problem. We analyze social heuristics identified in the literature and offer an outline for a new model of moral judgment. Simple social heuristics triggered by morally salient cues rely on three distinct processes (role-model entity, action analysis, and consequence tallying—REACT) in order to compute the moral valence of specific intuitive responses (A, D, and C). These are then rapidly combined to form an intuitive judgment that could guide quick decision making. The ADC approach and REACT model can clarify a wide set of data from empirical moral psychology and could inform future studies on moral judgment, as well as case assessments and discussions about issues causing “deadlocked” moral intuitions.
    No preview · Article · Oct 2014 · AJOB Neuroscience
  • 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.
    Full-text · Article · Jun 2014 · Neuropsychologia
Show more