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J Cogn Neurosci. 2009 Jul;21(7):1396-405. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21137.

An FMRI investigation of spontaneous mental state inference for moral judgment.

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  • 1Harvard University, USA. lyoung@mit.edu

Abstract

Human moral judgment depends critically on "theory of mind," the capacity to represent the mental states of agents. Recent studies suggest that the right TPJ (RTPJ) and, to lesser extent, the left TPJ (LTPJ), the precuneus (PC), and the medial pFC (MPFC) are robustly recruited when participants read explicit statements of an agent's beliefs and then judge the moral status of the agent's action. Real-world interactions, by contrast, often require social partners to infer each other's mental states. The current study uses fMRI to probe the role of these brain regions in supporting spontaneous mental state inference in the service of moral judgment. Participants read descriptions of a protagonist's action and then either (i) "moral" facts about the action's effect on another person or (ii) "nonmoral" facts about the situation. The RTPJ, PC, and MPFC were recruited selectively for moral over nonmoral facts, suggesting that processing moral stimuli elicits spontaneous mental state inference. In a second experiment, participants read the same scenarios, but explicit statements of belief preceded the facts: Protagonists believed their actions would cause harm or not. The response in the RTPJ, PC, and LTPJ was again higher for moral facts but also distinguished between neutral and negative outcomes. Together, the results illuminate two aspects of theory of mind in moral judgment: (1) spontaneous belief inference and (2) stimulus-driven belief integration.

PMID:
18823250
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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