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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The computational and neural substrates of moral strategies in social decision-making

Jeroen M. van Baar, Luke J. Chang & Alan G. Sanfey
Nature Communications, Volume 10, Article number: 1483 (2019)


Individuals employ different moral principles to guide their social decision-making, thus expressing a specific ‘moral strategy’. Which computations characterize different moral strategies, and how might they be instantiated in the brain? Here, we tackle these questions in the context of decisions about reciprocity using a modified Trust Game. We show that different participants spontaneously and consistently employ different moral strategies. By mapping an integrative computational model of reciprocity decisions onto brain activity using inter-subject representational similarity analysis of fMRI data, we find markedly different neural substrates for the strategies of ‘guilt aversion’ and ‘inequity aversion’, even under conditions where the two strategies produce the same choices. We also identify a new strategy, ‘moral opportunism’, in which participants adaptively switch between guilt and inequity aversion, with a corresponding switch observed in their neural activation patterns. These findings provide a valuable view into understanding how different individuals may utilize different moral principles.


From the Discussion

We also report a new strategy observed in participants, moral opportunism. This group did not consistently apply one moral rule to their decisions, but rather appeared to make a motivational trade-off depending on the particular trial structure. This opportunistic decision strategy entailed switching between the behavioral patterns of guilt aversion and inequity aversion, and allowed participants to maximize their financial payoff while still always following a moral rule. Although it could have been the case that these opportunists merely resembled GA and IA in terms of decision outcome, and not in the underlying psychological process, a confirmatory analysis showed that the moral opportunists did in fact switch between the neural representations of guilt and inequity aversion, and thus flexibly employed the respective psychological processes underlying these two, quite different, social preferences. This further supports our interpretation that the activity patterns directly reflect guilt aversion and inequity aversion computations, and not a theoretically peripheral “third factor” shared between GA or IA participants. Additionally, we found activity patterns specifically linked to moral opportunism in the superior parietal cortex and dACC, which are strongly associated with cognitive control and working memory.

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