Neural correlates of conventional and harm/welfare-based moral decision-making

Stuart F. White, Hui Zhao, Kelly Kimiko Leong, Judith G. Smetana, Larry P. Nucci, R. James R. Blair

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


The degree to which social norms are processed by a unitary system or dissociable systems remains debated. Much research on children’s social-cognitive judgments has supported the distinction between “moral” (harm/welfare-based) and “conventional” norms. However, the extent to which these norms are processed by dissociable neural systems remains unclear. To address this issue, 23 healthy participants were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they rated the wrongness of harm/welfare-based and conventional transgressions and neutral vignettes. Activation significantly greater than the neutral vignette baseline was observed in regions implicated in decision-making regions including rostral/ventral medial frontal, anterior insula and dorsomedial frontal cortices when evaluating both harm/welfare-based and social-conventional transgressions. Greater activation when rating harm/welfare-based relative to social-conventional transgressions was seen through much of ACC and bilateral inferior frontal gyrus. Greater activation was observed in superior temporal gyrus, bilateral middle temporal gyrus, left PCC, and temporal-parietal junction when rating social-conventional transgressions relative to harm/welfare-based transgressions. These data suggest that decisions regarding the wrongness of actions, irrespective of whether they involve care/harm-based or conventional transgressions, recruit regions generally implicated in affect-based decision-making. However, there is neural differentiation between harm/welfare-based and conventional transgressions. This may reflect the particular importance of processing the intent of transgressors of conventional norms and perhaps the greater emotional content or salience of harm/welfare-based transgressions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1114-1128
Number of pages15
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017


  • Decision-making
  • Moral/conventional
  • Morality
  • Theory of mind
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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