People’s moral responses to similar situations change as they age, according to a new study at the University of Chicago that combined brain scanning, eye-tracking and behavioral measures to understand how the brain responds to morally laden scenarios.
Both preschool children and adults distinguish between damage done either intentionally or accidently when assessing whether a perpetrator had done something wrong. Nonetheless, adults are much less likely than children to think someone should be punished for damaging an object, especially if the action was accidental, said study author Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago and a leading scholar on affective and social neuroscience.
The different responses correlate with the various stages of development, Decety said, as the brain becomes better equipped to make reasoned judgments and integrate an understanding of the mental states of others with the outcome of their actions. Negative emotions alert people to the moral nature of a situation by bringing on discomfort that can precede moral judgment, and such an emotional response is stronger in young children, he explained.
“This is the first study to examine brain and behavior relationships in response to moral and non-moral situations from a neurodevelopmental perspective,” wrote Decety in the article, “The Contribution of Emotion and Cognition to Moral Sensitivity: A Neurodevelopmental Study,” published in the journal Cerebral Cortex. The study provides strong evidence that moral reasoning involves a complex integration between affective and cognitive processes that gradually changes with age.
For the research, Decety and colleagues studied 127 participants, aged 4 to 36, who were shown short video clips while undergoing an fMRI scan. The team also measured changes in the dilation of the people’s pupils as they watched the clips.
The participants watched a total of 96 clips that portrayed intentional harm, such as someone being shoved, and accidental harm, such as someone being struck accidentally, such as a golf player swinging a club. The clips also showed intentional damage to objects, such as a person kicking a bicycle tire, and accidental damage, such as a person knocking a teapot off the shelf.
Eye tracking in the scanner revealed that all of the participants, irrespective of their age, paid more attention to people being harmed and to objects being damaged than they did to the perpetrators. Additionally, an analysis of pupil size showed that “pupil dilation was significantly greater for intentional actions than accidental actions, and this difference was constant across age, and correlated with activity in the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex,” Decety said.
The study revealed that the extent of activation in different areas of the brain as participants were exposed to the morally laden videos changed with age. For young children, the amygdala, which is associated the generation of emotional responses to a social situation, was much more activated than it was in adults.
In contrast, adults’ responses were highest in the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex — areas of the brain that allow people to reflect on the values linked to outcomes and actions.
In addition to viewing the video clips, participants were asked to determine, for instance, how mean was the perpetrator, and how much punishment should he receive for causing damage or injury. The responses showed a clear connection between moral judgments and the activation the team had observed in the brain.
“Whereas young children had a tendency to consider all the perpetrator malicious, irrespective of intention and targets (people and objects), as participants aged, they perceived the perpetrator as clearly less mean when carrying out an accidental action, and even more so when the target was an object,” Decety said.
When recommending punishments, adults were more likely to make allowances for actions that were accidental, he said. The response showed that they had a better developed prefrontal cortex and stronger functional connectivity between this region and the amygdala than children. Adults were better equipped to make moral judgments.
“In addition, the ratings of empathic sadness for the victim, which were strongest in young children, decreased gradually with age, and correlated with the activity in the insula and subgenual prefrontal cortex,” which area areas associated with emotional behavior and automatic response to stresses, Decety said. Together, the results are consistent with the view that morality is instantiated by functionally integrating several distributed areas/networks.
The research was supported with a grant from the National Science Foundation. Joining Decety in writing the paper were Kalina Michalska, a postdoctoral scholar, and Katherine Kinzler, an assistant professor, both in the Department of Psychology.
William Harms | Newswise Science News
'Lipid asymmetry' plays key role in activating immune cells
20.02.2018 | Biophysical Society
New printing technique uses cells and molecules to recreate biological structures
20.02.2018 | Queen Mary University of London
For the first time, a team of researchers at the Max-Planck Institute (MPI) for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany, has succeeded in making an integrated circuit (IC) from just a monolayer of a semiconducting polymer via a bottom-up, self-assembly approach.
In the self-assembly process, the semiconducting polymer arranges itself into an ordered monolayer in a transistor. The transistors are binary switches used...
Breakthrough provides a new concept of the design of molecular motors, sensors and electricity generators at nanoscale
Researchers from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS (IOCB Prague), Institute of Physics of the CAS (IP CAS) and Palacký University...
For photographers and scientists, lenses are lifesavers. They reflect and refract light, making possible the imaging systems that drive discovery through the microscope and preserve history through cameras.
But today's glass-based lenses are bulky and resist miniaturization. Next-generation technologies, such as ultrathin cameras or tiny microscopes, require...
Scientists from the University of Zurich have succeeded for the first time in tracking individual stem cells and their neuronal progeny over months within the intact adult brain. This study sheds light on how new neurons are produced throughout life.
The generation of new nerve cells was once thought to taper off at the end of embryonic development. However, recent research has shown that the adult brain...
Theoretical physicists propose to use negative interference to control heat flow in quantum devices. Study published in Physical Review Letters
Quantum computer parts are sensitive and need to be cooled to very low temperatures. Their tiny size makes them particularly susceptible to a temperature...
15.02.2018 | Event News
13.02.2018 | Event News
12.02.2018 | Event News
20.02.2018 | Life Sciences
20.02.2018 | Medical Engineering
20.02.2018 | Physics and Astronomy