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Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2017 May 1;12(5):707-717. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsx002.

The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex mediates the interaction between moral and aesthetic valuation: a TMS study on the beauty-is-good stereotype.

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Department of Psychology, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy.
Human Evolution and Cognition Group (EvoCog), University of the Balearic Islands and IFISC, Associated Unit to CSIC, Palma de Mallorca, Spain.
Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy.
Brain Connectivity Center, C. Mondino National Neurological Institute, Pavia, Italy.


Attractive individuals are perceived as possessing more positive personal traits than unattractive individuals. This reliance on aesthetic features to infer moral character suggests a close link between aesthetic and moral valuation. Here we aimed to investigate the neural underpinnings of the interaction between aesthetic and moral valuation by combining transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) with a priming paradigm designed to assess the Beauty-is-Good stereotype. Participants evaluated the trustworthiness of a series of faces (targets), each of which was preceded by an adjective describing desirable, undesirable, or neutral aesthetic qualities (primes). TMS was applied between prime and target to interfere with activity in two regions known to be involved in aesthetic and moral valuation: the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC, a core region in social cognition) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC, critical in decision making). Our results showed that when TMS was applied over vertex (control) and over the dlPFC, participants judged faces as more trustworthy when preceded by positive than by negative aesthetic primes (as also shown in two behavioral experiments). However, when TMS was applied over the dmPFC, primes had no effect on trustworthiness judgments. A second Experiment corroborated this finding. Our results suggest that mPFC plays a causal role linking moral and aesthetic valuation.


TMS; aesthetics; attractiveness; face; morals; prefrontal cortex; social stereotypes; trustworthiness

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