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Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Moral Judgment and Decision-Making

Joshua Green & Liane Young
The Cognitive Neurosciences 
(p. 1013–1023). MIT Press.


This article reviews recent history and advances in the cognitive neuroscience of moral judgment and behavior. This field is conceived not as the study of a distinct set of neural functions but as an attempt to understand how the brain’s core neural systems coordinate to solve problems that we define, for nonneuroscientific reasons, as “moral.” At the heart of moral cognition are representations of value and the ways in which they are encoded, acquired, and modulated.  Research dissociates distinct value representations—often within a dual-process framework—and explores the ways in which representations of value are informed or modulated by knowledge of mental states, explicit decision rules, the imagination of distal events, and social cues. Studies illustrating these themes examine the brains of morally pathological individuals, the responses of healthy brains to prototypically immoral actions, and the brain’s responses to more complex philosophical and economic dilemmas.

Here is an excerpt:

Cooperative Brains

Research on altruism and cooperation, though often considered apart from “morality,” could not be more
central to our understanding of the moral brain. The most basic question about the cognitive neuroscience
of altruism and cooperation is this: What neural processes enable and motivate people to be “nice”—that is, to pay costs to benefit others?

Consistent with our evolving story, the value of helping others, in both unidirectional altruism and bidirectional cooperation, is represented in the frontostriatal pathway and modulated by both economic incentives and social signals (Declerck, Boone, & Emonds, 2013).  Activity in this pathway tracks the value of charitable contributions (Moll et al., 2006) and of sharing resources with other individuals (Zaki & Mitchell, 2011). Likewise, it encodes the discounted value of rewards gained at the expense of others (Crockett, Siegel, Kurth-Nelson, Dayan, & Dolan, 2017). Here, signals from the DLPFC appear to modulate striatal signals, resulting in more altruistic behavior. The same pattern is observed in the case of increased altruism following compassion training (Weng et al., 2013). Striatal signals, likewise, track the value of punishing transgressors (Crockett et  al., 2013; de Quervain et al., 2004; Singer et al., 2006). And, as above, the DMN appears to have a hand in altruism:TPJ volume (Morishima, Schunk, Bruhin, Ruff, & Fehr, 2012) and medial PFC activity (Waytz, Zaki, & Mitchell, 2012) both predict altruistic behavior, with more dorsal mPFC regions representing the value of rewards for others (Apps & Ramnani, 2014).