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Neuroimage. 2010 Feb 1;49(3):2707-16. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.10.062. Epub 2009 Oct 28.

A functional imaging investigation of moral deliberation and moral intuition.

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The Mind Research Network, 1101 Yale Boulevard Northeast, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA.


Prior functional imaging studies of moral processing have utilized 'explicit' moral tasks that involve moral deliberation (e.g., reading statements such as 'he shot the victim' and rating the moral appropriateness of the behavior) or 'implicit' moral tasks that involve moral intuition (e.g., reading similar statements and memorizing them for a test but not rating their moral appropriateness). Although the neural mechanisms underlying moral deliberation and moral intuition may differ, these have not been directly compared. Studies using explicit moral tasks have reported increased activity in several regions, most consistently the medial prefrontal cortex and temporo-parietal junction. In the few studies that have utilized implicit moral tasks, medial prefrontal activity has been less consistent, suggesting the medial prefrontal cortex is more critical for moral deliberation than moral intuition. Thus, we hypothesized that medial prefrontal activity would be increased during an explicit, but not an implicit, moral task. Participants (n=28) were scanned using fMRI while viewing 50 unpleasant pictures, half of which depicted moral violations. Half of the participants rated pictures on moral violation severity (explicit task) while the other half indicated whether pictures occurred indoors or outdoors (implicit task). As predicted, participants performing the explicit, but not the implicit, task showed increased ventromedial prefrontal activity while viewing moral pictures. Both groups showed increased temporo-parietal junction activity while viewing moral pictures. These results suggest that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex may contribute more to moral deliberation than moral intuition, whereas the temporo-parietal junction may contribute more to moral intuition than moral deliberation.

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