Article | Published:

Moral transgressions corrupt neural representations of value

Nature Neuroscience volume 20, pages 879885 (2017) | Download Citation

Abstract

Moral systems universally prohibit harming others for personal gain. However, we know little about how such principles guide moral behavior. Using a task that assesses the financial cost participants ascribe to harming others versus themselves, we probed the relationship between moral behavior and neural representations of profit and pain. Most participants displayed moral preferences, placing a higher cost on harming others than themselves. Moral preferences correlated with neural responses to profit, where participants with stronger moral preferences had lower dorsal striatal responses to profit gained from harming others. Lateral prefrontal cortex encoded profit gained from harming others, but not self, and tracked the blameworthiness of harmful choices. Moral decisions also modulated functional connectivity between lateral prefrontal cortex and the profit-sensitive region of dorsal striatum. The findings suggest moral behavior in our task is linked to a neural devaluation of reward realized by a prefrontal modulation of striatal value representations.

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Acknowledgements

We thank E. Boorman, A. de Berker, L. Hunt, M. Klein-Flugge, C. Mathys, R. Rutledge, B. Seymour, P. Smittenaar, G. Story, I. Vlaev and J. Winston for feedback. M.J.C. was supported by a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship (092217/Z/10/Z) and a Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund grant. J.Z.S. was supported by a Wellcome Trust Society and Ethics studentship (104980/Z/14/Z). Z.K.-N. was supported by a Joint Initiative on Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research between the Max Planck Society and University College London. P.D. is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. R.J.D. holds a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award (098362/Z/12/Z). The Max Planck UCL Centre is a joint initiative supported by UCL and the Max Planck Society. The Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, where scanning was carried out, is supported by core funding from the Wellcome Trust (091593/Z/10/Z).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

    • Molly J Crockett
    •  & Jenifer Z Siegel
  2. Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

    • Molly J Crockett
  3. Max Planck–University College London Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing, London, UK.

    • Zeb Kurth-Nelson
    •  & Raymond J Dolan
  4. Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, London, UK.

    • Zeb Kurth-Nelson
    •  & Raymond J Dolan
  5. Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, University College London, London, UK.

    • Peter Dayan

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Contributions

M.J.C. conceived the study. M.J.C., J.Z.S., Z.K.-N., P.D. and R.J.D. designed the study. M.J.C. and J.Z.S. collected behavioral and fMRI data. M.J.C., J.Z.S., Z.K.-N. and P.D. analyzed the data. M.J.C. wrote the manuscript with edits from J.Z.S., Z.K.-N., P.D. and R.J.D.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Molly J Crockett.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4557

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