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Comparative Study
, 65 (6), 845-51

Damage to Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Impairs Judgment of Harmful Intent

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Comparative Study

Damage to Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Impairs Judgment of Harmful Intent

Liane Young et al. Neuron.

Abstract

Moral judgments, whether delivered in ordinary experience or in the courtroom, depend on our ability to infer intentions. We forgive unintentional or accidental harms and condemn failed attempts to harm. Prior work demonstrates that patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) deliver abnormal judgments in response to moral dilemmas and that these patients are especially impaired in triggering emotional responses to inferred or abstract events (e.g., intentions), as opposed to real or actual outcomes. We therefore predicted that VMPC patients would deliver abnormal moral judgments of harmful intentions in the absence of harmful outcomes, as in failed attempts to harm. This prediction was confirmed in the current study: VMPC patients judged attempted harms, including attempted murder, as more morally permissible relative to controls. These results highlight the critical role of the VMPC in processing harmful intent for moral judgment.

Figures

Figure 1
Figure 1
Lesion overlap of the 9 VMPC subjects using the MAP-3 technique. Top panel shows the left and right mesial views of the template brain. Panels 1,2,3 show three coronal sections through VMPC at the levels indicated in the top panel. The numbers of overlaps at each voxel is shown in the color bar.
Figure 2
Figure 2
Experimental design and stimuli. (top) The combination of intent (neutral vs. negative) and outcome (neutral vs. negative) factors yielded a 2×2 design with four conditions. (bottom) Full text of an example “failed attempt to harm” scenario. Bold sections indicate words that differed across conditions.
Figure 3
Figure 3
Moral judgments for all four conditions. Judgments are shown for each participant group, on 7-point scale. Error bars represent standard error of the mean. VMPC participants judged failed attempts to harm as significantly more permissible than the brain-damaged comparison (BDC) participants and the normal comparison (NC) participants (P values < 0.001).

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