Spatiotemporal neural dynamics of moral judgment: a high-density ERP study

Neuropsychologia. 2014 Jul;60:39-45. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.05.022. Epub 2014 Jun 4.


Morality is a pervasive aspect of human nature across all cultures, and neuroscience investigations are necessary for identifying what computational mechanisms underpin moral cognition. The current study used high-density ERPs to examine how moral evaluations are mediated by automatic and controlled processes as well as how quickly information and causal-intentional representations can be extracted when viewing morally laden behavior. The study also explored the extent to which individual dispositions in affective and cognitive empathy as well as justice sensitivity influence the encoding of moral valence when healthy participants make moral judgments about prosocial (interpersonal assistance) and antisocial (interpersonal harm) actions. Moral judgment differences were reflected in differential amplitudes for components associated with cognitive appraisal (LPP) as well as early components associated with emotional salience (N1 and N2). Moreover, source estimation was performed to indicate potential neural generators. A posterior-to-anterior shift was observed, with current density peaks first in right inferior parietal cortex (at the temporoparietal junction), then later in medial prefrontal cortex. Cognitive empathy scores predicted behavioral ratings of blame as well as differential amplitudes in LPP and component activity at posterior sites. Overall, this study offers important insights into the temporal unfolding of moral evaluations, including when in time individual differences in empathy influence neural encoding of moral valence.

Keywords: Cognitive empathy; High-density EEG/ERPs; Moral judgment; Right temporoparietal junction; Source localization; Ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Electroencephalography
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment / physiology*
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Young Adult