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Neuropsychologia. 2010 May;48(6):1789-801. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.03.001. Epub 2010 Mar 6.

Detestable or marvelous? Neuroanatomical correlates of character judgments.

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1
Department of Neurology, Division of Behavioral Neurology and Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Iowa College of Medicine, IA, USA. kcroft@utdallas.edu

Abstract

As we learn new information about the social and moral behaviors of other people, we form and update character judgments of them, and this can profoundly influence how we regard and act towards others. In the study reported here, we capitalized on two interesting neurological patient populations where this process of complex "moral updating" may go awry: patients with bilateral damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and patients with bilateral damage to hippocampus (HC). We predicted that vmPFC patients, who have impaired emotion processing, would exhibit reduced moral updating, and we also investigated how moral updating might be affected by severe declarative memory impairment in HC patients. The vmPFC, HC, and brain-damaged comparison (BDC) participants made moral judgments about unfamiliar persons before and after exposure to social scenarios depicting the persons engaged in morally good, bad, or neutral behaviors. In line with our prediction, the vmPFC group showed the least amount of change in moral judgments, and interestingly, the HC group showed the most amount of change. These results suggest that the vmPFC and hippocampus play critical but complementary roles in updating moral character judgments about others: the vmPFC may attribute emotional salience to moral information, whereas the hippocampus may provide necessary contextual information from which to make appropriate character judgments.

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