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Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2012 Oct;7(7):743-51. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss069. Epub 2012 Jun 18.

Differential neural circuitry and self-interest in real vs hypothetical moral decisions.

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  • 1MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 15 Chaucer Road, Cambridge CB2 7EF, UK.


Classic social psychology studies demonstrate that people can behave in ways that contradict their intentions--especially within the moral domain. We measured brain activity while subjects decided between financial self-benefit (earning money) and preventing physical harm (applying an electric shock) to a confederate under both real and hypothetical conditions. We found a shared neural network associated with empathic concern for both types of decisions. However, hypothetical and real moral decisions also recruited distinct neural circuitry: hypothetical moral decisions mapped closely onto the imagination network, while real moral decisions elicited activity in the bilateral amygdala and anterior cingulate--areas essential for social and affective processes. Moreover, during real moral decision-making, distinct regions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) determined whether subjects make selfish or pro-social moral choices. Together, these results reveal not only differential neural mechanisms for real and hypothetical moral decisions but also that the nature of real moral decisions can be predicted by dissociable networks within the PFC.

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