Journal article Open Access

The Neural Correlates of Moral Thinking: A Meta-Analysis

Douglas J. Bryant; Wang F; Kelley Deardeuff; Emily Zoccoli; Chang S. Nam

We conducted a meta-analysis to evaluate current research that aims to map the neural correlates of two typical conditions of moral judgment: right-wrong moral judgments and decision-making in moral dilemmas. Utilizing the activation likelihood estimation (ALE) method, we conducted a meta-analysis using neuroimaging data obtained from twenty-one previous studies that measured responses in one or the other of these conditions. We found that across the studies (n = 400), distinct neural circuits correlated with a distinction in the type of moral question used as stimulus. For right-wrong moral judgments, the significantly active regions were identified in the right medial frontal gyrus, the bilateral anterior cingulates, the left inferior frontal gyrus, the right middle temporal gyrus, the left superior frontal gyrus and the left posterior cingulate. When reasoning through moral dilemmas, the significantly active regions included the left cingulate gyrus, the right superior temporal gyrus, the left precuneus, the left inferior temporal gyrus and the right middle frontal gyrus. We further found that the two types of moral judgment share some overlapping regions, including the left medial frontal gyrus, the left middle frontal gyrus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the left superior temporal gyrus. Different moral tasks engage distinct neural correlates of moral thinking that share a common fundamental structure. These correlates parallel those engaged in emotional and intuitive judgments, on the one hand, and those engaged in deliberative assessment, on the other. 

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