Neurocomputational mechanisms underlying immoral decisions benefiting self or others

Chen Qu, Yang Hu, Zixuan Tang, Edmund Derrington, Jean-Claude Dreher
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2020 March 12
Immoral behavior often consists of weighing transgression of a moral norm against maximizing personal profits. One important question is to understand why immoral behaviors vary based on who receives specific benefits and what are the neurocomputational mechanisms underlying such moral flexibility. Here, we used model-based fMRI to investigate how immoral behaviors change when benefiting oneself or someone else. Participants were presented with offers requiring a tradeoff between a moral cost (i.e. profiting a morally bad cause) and a benefit for either oneself or a charity. Participants were more willing to obtain ill-gotten profits for themselves than for a charity, driven by a devaluation of the moral cost when deciding for their own interests. The subjective value of an immoral offer, computed as a linear summation of the weighed monetary gain and moral cost, recruited the ventromedial prefrontal cortex regardless of beneficiaries. Moreover, paralleling the behavioral findings, this region enhanced its functional coupling with mentalizing-related regions while deciding whether to gain morally-tainted profits for oneself vs. charity. Finally, individual differences in moral preference differentially modulated choice-specific signals in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex according to who benefited from the decisions. These findings provide insights for understanding the neurobiological basis of moral flexibility.

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