Doing the right thing: A common neural circuit for appropriate violent or compassionate behavior

John A. King, R. James R. Blair, Derek G.V. Mitchell, Raymond J. Dolan, Neil Burgess

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Humans have a considerable facility to adapt their behavior in a manner that is appropriate to social or societal context. A failure of this ability can lead to social exclusion and is a feature of disorders such as psychopathy and disruptive behavior disorder. We investigated the neural basis of this ability using a customized video game played by 12 healthy participants in an fMRI scanner. Two conditions involved extreme examples of context-appropriate action: shooting an aggressive humanoid assailant or healing a passive wounded person. Two control conditions involved carefully matched stimuli paired with inappropriate actions: shooting the person or healing the assailant. Surprisingly, the same circuit, including the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, was activated when participants acted in a context-appropriate manner, whether being compassionate towards an injured conspecific or aggressive towards a violent assailant. The findings indicate a common system that guides behavioral expression appropriate to social or societal context irrespective of its aggressive or compassionate nature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1069-1076
Number of pages8
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 15 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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