The value of moral action

As part of the Past Neuroeconomics Colloquium Spring 2018

Speaker: Molly Crockett, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Yale University
Research Fellow, Oxford Centre for Neuroethics

The value of moral action

Time: 2:40 pm to 4:00 pm
Date: Tuesday, February 13th, 2018
Location: NYU Department of Economics, 19 W 4th Street, Room 517




Classical models of antisocial behavior propose that violence arises out of a failure of lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) to “put the brakes” on aggressive impulses originating in subcortical regions such as the amygdala and striatum. A new, alternative model proposes that LPFC does not directly inhibit aggressive impulses, but instead flexibly modulates the value of aggressive acts via corticostriatal circuits. I will present the first empirical evidence directly supporting the alternative model. In a series of behavioral, pharmacological and neuroimaging experiments we observed healthy adults as they decided whether to anonymously inflict pain on themselves or strangers in exchange for money. We found that most people would rather harm themselves than others for profit. This moral preference correlated with neural responses to profit, where participants with stronger moral preferences had lower dorsal striatal responses to profit gained from harming others. LPFC encoded profits gained from harming others, but not self, and tracked the blameworthiness of harmful choices. Moral decisions modulated functional connectivity between LPFC and the profit-sensitive region of dorsal striatum. Increasing central dopamine levels with the dopamine precursor levodopa eliminated moral preferences. The findings suggest moral behavior is linked to a neural devaluation of reward realized by a prefrontal modulation of striatal value representations. This mechanism implies that the moral value of actions is flexibly guided by neural representations of social norms. If norms change, so then do the values that guide actions. Supporting this view, changing norms via framing and social influence modulated more preferences. Implications for theories of value representation in social decision-making will be discussed.

Full Paper: Click here

About the Speaker

Dr. Molly Crockett is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University and a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. Prior to joining Yale, Dr Crockett was a faculty member at the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology and a Fellow of Jesus College. She holds a BSc in Neuroscience from UCLA and a PhD in Experimental Psychology from the University of Cambridge, and completed a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship with economists and neuroscientists at the University of Zürich and University College London.