Cold or calculating? Reduced activity in the subgenual cingulate cortex reflects decreased emotional aversion to harming in counterintuitive utilitarian judgment

Katja Wiech, Guy Kahane, Nicholas Shackel, Miguel Farias, Julian Savulescu, Irene Tracey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

46 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Recent research on moral decision-making has suggested that many common moral judgments are based on immediate intuitions. However, some individuals arrive at highly counterintuitive utilitarian conclusions about when it is permissible to harm other individuals. Such utilitarian judgments have been attributed to effortful reasoning that has overcome our natural emotional aversion to harming others. Recent studies, however, suggest that such utilitarian judgments might also result from a decreased aversion to harming others, due to a deficit in empathic concern and social emotion. The present study investigated the neural basis of such indifference to harming using functional neuroimaging during engagement in moral dilemmas. A tendency to counterintuitive utilitarian judgment was associated both with 'psychoticism', a trait associated with a lack of empathic concern and antisocial tendencies, and with 'need for cognition', a trait reflecting preference for effortful cognition. Importantly, only psychoticism was also negatively correlated with activation in the subgenual cingulate cortex (SCC), a brain area implicated in empathic concern and social emotions such as guilt, during counterintuitive utilitarian judgments. Our findings suggest that when individuals reach highly counterintuitive utilitarian conclusions, this need not reflect greater engagement in explicit moral deliberation. It may rather reflect a lack of empathic concern, and diminished aversion to harming others.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)364-372
Number of pages9
JournalCognition
Volume126
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Cingulate cortex
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging
  • Moral decision-making
  • Social cognition
  • Utilitarian judgment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Medicine(all)

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