The neural correlates of justified and unjustified killing: an fMRI study

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015 Oct;10(10):1397-404. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv027. Epub 2015 Mar 9.


Despite moral prohibitions on hurting other humans, some social contexts allow for harmful actions such as killing of others. One example is warfare, where killing enemy soldiers is seen as morally justified. Yet, the neural underpinnings distinguishing between justified and unjustified killing are largely unknown. To improve understanding of the neural processes involved in justified and unjustified killing, participants had to imagine being the perpetrator whilst watching 'first-person perspective' animated videos where they shot enemy soldiers ('justified violence') and innocent civilians ('unjustified violence'). When participants imagined themselves shooting civilians compared with soldiers, greater activation was found in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). Regression analysis revealed that the more guilt participants felt about shooting civilians, the greater the response in the lateral OFC. Effective connectivity analyses further revealed an increased coupling between lateral OFC and the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) when shooting civilians. The results show that the neural mechanisms typically implicated with harming others, such as the OFC, become less active when the violence against a particular group is seen as justified. This study therefore provides unique insight into how normal individuals can become aggressors in specific situations.

Keywords: conflict; intentional harm; morality; orbitofrontal cortex; violence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Guilt*
  • Homicide / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Imagination
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Military Personnel
  • Morals*
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology
  • Violence / psychology*