Heart rate correlates of utilitarian moral decision-making in alcoholism

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2013 Dec 1;133(2):413-9. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2013.06.023. Epub 2013 Jul 20.


Background: Recent studies of moral reasoning in patients with alcohol use disorders have indicated a 'utilitarian' bias, whereby patients are more likely to endorse emotionally aversive actions in favor of aggregate welfare (e.g., to kill a person in order to save a group of people). The aim of the present study was to examine psychophysiological correlates of this tendency indexed by heart rate.

Methods: The sample was composed by 31 alcohol-dependent individuals and 34 healthy controls without alcohol use disorders. Electrocardiogram was recorded at rest and during execution of a validated moral judgment task, including non-moral scenarios, and moral dilemmas that were either high in emotional salience ("personal scenarios") or low in emotional salience ("impersonal scenarios").

Results: Alcohol-dependent individuals showed a blunted response to moral dilemmas. Furthermore, healthy controls displayed decreased heart rate to the personal vs. impersonal or non-moral scenarios, while alcohol-dependent individuals failed to differentiate dilemmas in terms of heart rate both prior decision-making and its post appraisal. These deficits were not related to baseline differences in Heart Rate.

Conclusion: Our findings indicate that alcohol-dependent individuals failed to engage emotional aversive reactions to personal moral violations in terms of heart rate response.

Keywords: Alcohol-dependent individuals; Emotion; Heart rate; Moral decision-making.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcoholism / physiopathology*
  • Alcoholism / psychology*
  • Arrhythmia, Sinus / physiopathology
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Morals*