The neuromoral theory of antisocial, violent, and psychopathic behavior

Psychiatry Res. 2019 Jul:277:64-69. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2018.11.025. Epub 2018 Nov 14.


The neuromoral theory of antisocial behaviors argues that impairment to the neural circuitry underlying morality provides a common foundation for antisocial, violent, and psychopathic behavior in children, adolescents, and adults. This article reviews new findings in two research fields since this theory was first proposed: brain mechanisms underlying moral decision-making, and brain systems subserving antisocial behaviors. The neuromoral theory is updated to take into account new empirical findings. Key areas implicated in both moral decision-making and the spectrum of antisocial behaviors include fronto-polar, medial, and ventral prefrontal cortical regions, and the anterior cingulate, amygdala, superior temporal gyrus, and angular gyrus / temporoparietal junction. It is hypothesized that different manifestations of antisocial behavior are characterized by differing degrees of neuromoral dysfunction, with primary psychopathy, proactive aggression, and life-course persistent offending being more affected, and secondary psychopathy, reactive aggression, and crimes involving drugs relatively less affected by neuromoral dysfunction. Limitations of the current model, social contextual factors, neural remediation interventions, ascertaining whether the affective or cognitive component of empathy is most implicated, and directions for future research are outlined. One forensic implication of the model is that significant impairment to the neuromoral circuit could constitute diminished criminal responsibility.

Keywords: Aggression; Amygdala; Prefrontal; Proactive; Reactive; Temporal; Treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aggression / psychology
  • Amygdala / physiopathology
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Child
  • Criminals / psychology*
  • Decision Making
  • Empathy
  • Female
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Violence / psychology*
  • Young Adult