Moral Concepts Set Decision Strategies to Abstract Values
Lucas, Marc G
PloS one 2011 April 1; 6(4): e18451
Persons have different value preferences. Neuroimaging studies where value-based decisions in actual conflict situations were investigated suggest an important role of prefrontal and cingulate brain regions. General preferences, however, reflect a superordinate moral concept independent of actual situations as proposed in psychological and socioeconomic research. Here, the specific brain response would be influenced by abstract value systems and moral concepts. The neurobiological mechanisms underlying such responses are largely unknown. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with a forced-choice paradigm on word pairs representing abstract values, we show that the brain handles such decisions depending on the person's superordinate moral concept. Persons with a predominant collectivistic (altruistic) value system applied a "balancing and weighing" strategy, recruiting brain regions of rostral inferior and intraparietal, and midcingulate and frontal cortex. Conversely, subjects with mainly individualistic (egocentric) value preferences applied a "fight-and-flight" strategy by recruiting the left amygdala. Finally, if subjects experience a value conflict when rejecting an alternative congruent to their own predominant value preference, comparable brain regions are activated as found in actual moral dilemma situations, i.e., midcingulate and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Our results demonstrate that superordinate moral concepts influence the strategy and the neural mechanisms in decision processes, independent of actual situations, showing that decisions are based on general neural principles. These findings provide a novel perspective to future sociological and economic research as well as to the analysis of social relations by focusing on abstract value systems as triggers of specific brain responses.
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