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, 24 (3), 279-295

The Neuroscience of Morality and Social Decision-Making


The Neuroscience of Morality and Social Decision-Making

Keith J Yoder et al. Psychol Crime Law.


Across cultures humans care deeply about morality and create institutions, such as criminal courts, to enforce social norms. In such contexts, judges and juries engage in complex social decision-making to ascertain a defendant's capacity, blameworthiness, and culpability. Cognitive neuroscience investigations have begun to reveal the distributed neural networks which interact to implement moral judgment and social decision-making, including systems for reward learning, valuation, mental state understanding, and salience processing. These processes are fundamental to morality, and their underlying neural mechanisms are influenced by individual differences in empathy, caring and justice sensitivity. This new knowledge has important implication in legal settings for understanding how triers of fact reason. Moreover, recent work demonstrates how disruptions within the social decision-making network facilitate immoral behavior, as in the case of psychopathy. Incorporating neuroscientific methods with psychology and clinical neuroscience has the potential to improve predictions of recidivism, future dangerousness, and responsivity to particular forms of rehabilitation.

Keywords: empathy; justice motivation; morality; neuroscience; psychopathy; social decision-making.


Figure 1:
Figure 1:
Cognitive architecture and brain regions underlying social decision-making and morality. Schematic diagram (A) and color-coded cortical and subcortical areas (B) with their respective roles in decision-making. The salience network is anchored by reciprocal connections between the amygdala, anterior insula, and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC). It coordinates widespread shifts in neural recruitment in response to motivationally relevant cues. The ventral striatum, amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) update and maintain stimulus-value associations, which are essential to reward learning. The posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), temporoparietal junction (TPJ), and mPFC are core nodes underlying social cognitive functions, especially mental state understanding. The ACC is an integrative hub which receives inputs from these diverse regions and is critically involved in computing the anticipated reward value of alternative actions, particularly in situations where action-outcome contingencies vary. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) dynamically contributes to cognitive control and instigating goal-direct behaviors. In the context of social decision-making, dlPFC is critical for implementing social norms.

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