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Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Dec;11(12):1872-1881. Epub 2016 Aug 6.

Variation in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is associated with differences in moral judgment.

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Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 02138, Cambridge, MA, USA
Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit, Center for Human Genetics Research, Massachusetts General Hospital, 02114, Boston MA, USA.
Stanford University School of Medicine, 94305, Stanford, CA, USA.
Department of Global Health and Population, Harvard School of Public Health, 02115, Boston, MA, USA.
Center for Experimental Drugs and Diagnostics, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, 02114, Boston, MA, USA.
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 02138, Cambridge, MA, USA.


Moral judgments are produced through the coordinated interaction of multiple neural systems, each of which relies on a characteristic set of neurotransmitters. Genes that produce or regulate these neurotransmitters may have distinctive influences on moral judgment. Two studies examined potential genetic influences on moral judgment using dilemmas that reliably elicit competing automatic and controlled responses, generated by dissociable neural systems. Study 1 (N = 228) examined 49 common variants (SNPs) within 10 candidate genes and identified a nominal association between a polymorphism (rs237889) of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and variation in deontological vs utilitarian moral judgment (that is, judgments favoring individual rights vs the greater good). An association was likewise observed for rs1042615 of the arginine vasopressin receptor gene (AVPR1A). Study 2 (N = 322) aimed to replicate these findings using the aforementioned dilemmas as well as a new set of structurally similar medical dilemmas. Study 2 failed to replicate the association with AVPR1A, but replicated the OXTR finding using both the original and new dilemmas. Together, these findings suggest that moral judgment is influenced by variation in the oxytocin receptor gene and, more generally, that single genetic polymorphisms can have a detectable effect on complex decision processes.


decision-making; genetics; morality

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