The speed of morality: a high-density electrical neuroimaging study

Jean Decety, Stephanie Cacioppo


Neuroscience research indicates that moral reasoning is underpinned by distinct neural networks including the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), amygdala, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which support communication between computational systems underlying affective states, cognitions, and motivational processes. To characterize real-time neural processing underpinning moral computations, high-density event-related potentials were measured in participants while they viewed short, morally laden visual scenarios depicting intentional and accidental harmful actions. Current source density maxima in the right pSTS as fast as 62 ms poststimulus first distinguished intentional vs. accidental actions. Responses in the amygdala/temporal pole (122 ms) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (182 ms) were then evoked by the perception of harmful actions, indicative of fast information processing associated with early stages of moral cognition. Our data strongly support the notion that intentionality is the first input to moral computations. They also demonstrate that emotion acts as a gain antecedent to moral judgment by alerting the individual to the moral salience of a situation and provide evidence for the pervasive role of affect in moral sensitivity and reasoning.

  • moral cognition
  • emotion
  • intention understanding
  • high-density event-related potentials
  • posterior superior temporal sulcus
  • amygdala
  • ventromedial prefrontal cortex
  • temporal pole
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