Simulating murder: the aversion to harmful action

Emotion. 2012 Feb;12(1):2-7. doi: 10.1037/a0025071. Epub 2011 Sep 12.


Diverse lines of evidence point to a basic human aversion to physically harming others. First, we demonstrate that unwillingness to endorse harm in a moral dilemma is predicted by individual differences in aversive reactivity, as indexed by peripheral vasoconstriction. Next, we tested the specific factors that elicit the aversive response to harm. Participants performed actions such as discharging a fake gun into the face of the experimenter, fully informed that the actions were pretend and harmless. These simulated harmful actions increased peripheral vasoconstriction significantly more than did witnessing pretend harmful actions or to performing metabolically matched nonharmful actions. This suggests that the aversion to harmful actions extends beyond empathic concern for victim harm. Together, these studies demonstrate a link between the body and moral decision-making processes.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aggression / ethics
  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Cardiography, Impedance
  • Decision Making / ethics
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Electrocardiography
  • Emotions / ethics
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Homicide / ethics
  • Homicide / psychology
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Vascular Resistance / ethics
  • Vascular Resistance / physiology
  • Young Adult