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PLoS One. 2012;7(10):e47698. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0047698. Epub 2012 Oct 17.

The human factor: behavioral and neural correlates of humanized perception in moral decision making.

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Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Unit, Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.


The extent to which people regard others as full-blown individuals with mental states ("humanization") seems crucial for their prosocial motivation towards them. Previous research has shown that decisions about moral dilemmas in which one person can be sacrificed to save multiple others do not consistently follow utilitarian principles. We hypothesized that this behavior can be explained by the potential victim's perceived humanness and an ensuing increase in vicarious emotions and emotional conflict during decision making. Using fMRI, we assessed neural activity underlying moral decisions that affected fictitious persons that had or had not been experimentally humanized. In implicit priming trials, participants either engaged in mentalizing about these persons (Humanized condition) or not (Neutral condition). In subsequent moral dilemmas, participants had to decide about sacrificing these persons' lives in order to save the lives of numerous others. Humanized persons were sacrificed less often, and the activation pattern during decisions about them indicated increased negative affect, emotional conflict, vicarious emotions, and behavioral control (pgACC/mOFC, anterior insula/IFG, aMCC and precuneus/PCC). Besides, we found enhanced effective connectivity between aMCC and anterior insula, which suggests increased emotion regulation during decisions affecting humanized victims. These findings highlight the importance of others' perceived humanness for prosocial behavior - with aversive affect and other-related concern when imagining harming more "human-like" persons acting against purely utilitarian decisions.

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