Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment

In a subsequent set of analyses, we subdivided the personal moral dilemmas into two categories on the basis of difficulty (i.e., based on reaction time). Consider the following moral dilemma (the crying baby dilemma):

It is wartime, and you and some of your fellow villagers are hiding from enemy soldiers in a basement. Your baby starts to cry, and you cover your baby's mouth to block the sound. If you remove your hand, your baby will cry loudly, the soldiers will hear, and they will find you and the others and kill everyone they find, including you and your baby. If you do not remove your hand, your baby will smother to death. Is it okay to smother your baby to death in order to save yourself and the other villagers?

This is a very difficult question. Different people give different answers, and nearly everyone takes a relatively long time. This response is in contrast to other personal moral dilemmas, such as the infanticide dilemma, in which a teenage girl must decide whether to kill her unwanted newborn. In response to this case, people (at least the ones we tested) quickly and unanimously say that this action is wrong.

What's going on in these two cases? My collaborators and I hypothesized as follows. In both cases, there is a prepotent, negative emotional response to the personal violation in question, killing one's own baby. In the crying baby case, however, a cost-benefit analysis strongly favors smothering the baby. After all, the baby is going to die no matter what, and so you have nothing to lose (in consequen-tialist terms) and much to gain by smothering it, awful as it is. In some people, the emotional response dominates, and these people say "no." In other people, this "cognitive," cost-benefit analysis wins out, and these people say "yes."

What does this model predict that we will see going on in people's brains when we compare cases like crying baby and infanticide? First, this model supposes that cases like crying baby involve an increased level of "response conflict," that is, conflict between competing representations for behavioral response. Thus, we should expect that difficult moral dilemmas like crying baby will produce increased activity in a brain region that is associated with response conflict, the anterior cingulate cortex (Botvinick et al. 2001). Second, according to our model, the crucial difference between cases like crying baby and cases like infanticide is that the former evoke strong "cognitive" responses that can effectively compete with a prepotent, emotional response. Thus, we should expect to see increased activity in classically "cognitive" brain areas when we compare cases like crying baby to cases like infanticide, despite the fact that difficult dilemmas like crying baby are personal moral dilemmas, which were previously associated with emotional response (Greene et al. 2001).

These two predictions have held (Greene et al. 2004). Comparing high-reaction-time personal moral dilemmas like crying baby to low-reaction-time personal moral dilemmas like infanticide revealed increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (conflict) as well as the anterior dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior parietal lobes, both classically "cognitive" brain regions.

Cases like crying baby are especially interesting because they allow us to directly compare the neural activity associated with competing moral philosophies. Consequentialists (or utilitarians9 such as John Stuart Mill (1998) believe that one should, in any given decision, do whatever will produce the best overall consequences. In contrast, deontologists such as Immanuel Kant (1959) believe that it is often wrong to do things that will produce the best possible consequences ("The ends don't justify the means."). According to our model, when people say "yes" to cases like the crying baby case (the utilitarian answer), it is because the "cognitive," cost-benefit analysis has successfully dominated the prepotent emotional response that drives people to say "no" (the non-utilitarian or deontological answer). If that model is right, then we should expect to see increased activity in the previously identified "cognitive" brain regions (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and inferior parietal cortex) for the trials in which people say "yes" in response to cases like crying baby. This result is exactly what we found. In other words, people exhibit more "cognitive" activitywhen theygive the utilitarian answer2 (Fig. 1).

2 It is worth nothing that no brain regions, including those implicated in emotion, exhibited the opposite effect. However, it is difficult to draw conclusions from negative neuroimaging results because current neuroimaging techniques, which track changes in blood flow, are relatively crude instruments for detecting patterns in neural function.

Right anterior DLPFC: Utilitarian vs. non-utilitarian moral judgment

Right anterior DLPFC: Utilitarian vs. non-utilitarian moral judgment

Dlpfc Moral

Fig. 1. Subjects responded to moral dilemmas in which someone must commit a "personal" moral violation if he is to bring about the best possible consequences, i.e., to act in accordance with utilitarian principles. Brain regions associated with cognitive control, the left and right anterior dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (DLPFC), exhibited increased activity during trials in which the subjects judged in accordance with utilitarianism. Above is a time course describing the average level of activity in a brain region within the right anterior DLPFC. The data are sorted by the subjects' responses: utilitarian judgment (action judged "appropriate") = solid line; non-utilitarian judgment (action judged "inappropriate") = dashed line. Data are not adjusted for hemodynamic lag (Greene et al. 2004).

Fig. 1. Subjects responded to moral dilemmas in which someone must commit a "personal" moral violation if he is to bring about the best possible consequences, i.e., to act in accordance with utilitarian principles. Brain regions associated with cognitive control, the left and right anterior dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (DLPFC), exhibited increased activity during trials in which the subjects judged in accordance with utilitarianism. Above is a time course describing the average level of activity in a brain region within the right anterior DLPFC. The data are sorted by the subjects' responses: utilitarian judgment (action judged "appropriate") = solid line; non-utilitarian judgment (action judged "inappropriate") = dashed line. Data are not adjusted for hemodynamic lag (Greene et al. 2004).

To summarize, people's moral judgments appear to be products of at least two different kinds of psychological processes. First, both brain imaging and reaction time data suggest that there are prepotent negative emotional responses that drive people to disapprove of the personally harmful actions proposed in cases like the footbridge and crying baby dilemmas. Second, further brain imaging results suggest that "cognitive" psychological processes can compete with the aforementioned emotional processes, driving people to approve of personally harmful moral violations, primarily when there is a strong utilitarian rationale for doing so, as in the crying baby case. The parts of the brain that exhibit increased activity when people make characteristically utilitarian judgments are those that are most closely associated with higher cognitive functions, such as executive control (Koechlin et al. 2003; Miller and Cohen 2001), complex planning (Koechlin et al. 1999), and deductive and inductive reasoning (Goel and Dolan 2004). These brain regions are among those most dramatically expanded in humans as compared to other primates (Allman et al. 2002).

This sort of "dual-process" model of decision-making, while new to moral psychology, has proven successful in other domains (Chaiken and Trope 1999;

Kahneman 2003; Lieberman et al. 2002). A common theme among these models is the idea that an individual's behavior is determined through an interaction between two processing streams operating in parallel: a quick and efficient processing stream that provides stereotyped responses based on limited information and a slower, more deliberative processing stream that provides more flexible responses based on a (potentially) much wider range of information. Recent neuroimaging studies have generated evidence for dual-process accounts of decisionmaking in the Ultimatum Game (Sanfey et al. 2003), decisions involving choices between immediate and delayed rewards (McClure et al. 2004), and the regulation of emotional responses to faces of members of racial out-groups (Cunningham et al. 2004). In each of these studies, several of the brain regions described above appear to perform functions similar to those described above.

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