Selective impairment of cognitive empathy for moral judgment in adults with high functioning autism.
ABSTRACT: Faced with a moral dilemma, conflict arises between a cognitive controlled response aimed at maximizing welfare, i.e. the utilitarian judgment, and an emotional aversion to harm, i.e. the deontological judgment. In the present study, we investigated moral judgment in adult individuals with high functioning autism/Asperger syndrome (HFA/AS), a clinical population characterized by impairments in prosocial emotions and social cognition. In Experiment 1, we compared the response patterns of HFA/AS participants and neurotypical controls to moral dilemmas with low and high emotional saliency. We found that HFA/AS participants more frequently delivered the utilitarian judgment. Their perception of appropriateness of moral transgression was similar to that of controls, but HFA/AS participants reported decreased levels of emotional reaction to the dilemma. In Experiment 2, we explored the way in which demographic, clinical and social cognition variables including emotional and cognitive aspects of empathy and theory of mind influenced moral judgment. We found that utilitarian HFA/AS participants showed a decreased ability to infer other people's thoughts and to understand their intentions, as measured both by performance on neuropsychological tests and through dispositional measures. We conclude that greater prevalence of utilitarianism in HFA/AS is associated with difficulties in specific aspects of social cognition.
Project description:In the current study, we examine the effect of physical coldness on personal moral dilemma judgment. Previous studies have indicated that utilitarian moral judgment-sacrificing a few people to achieve the greater good for others-was facilitated when: (1) participants suppressed an initial emotional response and deliberately thought about the utility of outcomes; (2) participants had a high-level construal mindset and focused on abstract goals (e.g., save many); or (3) there was a decreasing emotional response to sacrificing a few. In two experiments, we exposed participants to extreme cold or typical room temperature and then asked them to make personal moral dilemma judgments. The results of Experiment 1 indicated that coldness prompted utilitarian judgment, but the effect of coldness was independent from deliberate thought or abstract high-level construal mindset. As Experiment 2 revealed, coldness facilitated utilitarian judgment via reduced empathic feelings. Therefore, physical coldness did not affect the "cool-headed" deliberate process or the abstract high-level construal mindset. Rather, coldness biased people toward being "cold-hearted," reduced empathetic concern, and facilitated utilitarian moral judgments.
Project description:Traditional theories of moral development emphasize the role of controlled cognition in mature moral judgment, while a more recent trend emphasizes intuitive and emotional processes. Here we test a dual-process theory synthesizing these perspectives. More specifically, our theory associates utilitarian moral judgment (approving of harmful actions that maximize good consequences) with controlled cognitive processes and associates non-utilitarian moral judgment with automatic emotional responses. Consistent with this theory, we find that a cognitive load manipulation selectively interferes with utilitarian judgment. This interference effect provides direct evidence for the influence of controlled cognitive processes in moral judgment, and utilitarian moral judgment more specifically.
Project description:In moral dilemma tasks, high levels of psychopathic traits often predict increased utilitarian responding-specifically, endorsing sacrificing one person to save many. Research suggests that increased arousal (i.e., somatic marker production) underlies lower rates of utilitarian responding during moral dilemmas. Though deficient somatic marker production is characteristic of psychopathy, how this deficit affects the psychopathy-utilitarian connection remains unknown. We assessed psychopathic traits in undergraduates, as well as behavioral performance and skin conductance level reactivity (SCL-R; a measure of somatic marker production) during a moral dilemma task. High psychopathic traits and low SCL-R were associated with increased utilitarian decisions in dilemmas involving direct personal harm. Psychopathic traits were unrelated to SCL-R, nor did SCL-R mediate the relationship between psychopathy and utilitarianism. The present study did not find evidence that somatic marker production explains the connection between utilitarianism and psychopathy in a college population. Further research is necessary to identify the neural mechanisms relating psychopathy and moral decision-making in nonclinical samples.
Project description:This study investigated hypothetical moral choices in adults with high-functioning autism and the role of empathy and alexithymia in such choices. We used a highly emotionally salient moral dilemma task to investigate autistics' hypothetical moral evaluations about personally carrying out harmful utilitarian behaviours aimed at maximizing welfare. Results showed that they exhibited a normal pattern of moral judgments despite the deficits in social cognition and emotional processing. Further analyses revealed that this was due to mutually conflicting biases associated with autistic and alexithymic traits after accounting for shared variance: (a) autistic traits were associated with reduced utilitarian bias due to elevated personal distress of demanding social situations, while (b) alexithymic traits were associated with increased utilitarian bias on account of reduced empathic concern for the victim. Additionally, autistics relied on their non-verbal reasoning skills to rigidly abide by harm-norms. Thus, utilitarian moral judgments in autism were spared due to opposite influences of autistic and alexithymic traits and compensatory intellectual strategies. These findings demonstrate the importance of empathy and alexithymia in autistic moral cognition and have methodological implications for studying moral judgments in several other clinical populations.
Project description:Recent research on moral decision-making has suggested that many common moral judgments are based on immediate intuitions. However, some individuals arrive at highly counterintuitive utilitarian conclusions about when it is permissible to harm other individuals. Such utilitarian judgments have been attributed to effortful reasoning that has overcome our natural emotional aversion to harming others. Recent studies, however, suggest that such utilitarian judgments might also result from a decreased aversion to harming others, due to a deficit in empathic concern and social emotion. The present study investigated the neural basis of such indifference to harming using functional neuroimaging during engagement in moral dilemmas. A tendency to counterintuitive utilitarian judgment was associated both with 'psychoticism', a trait associated with a lack of empathic concern and antisocial tendencies, and with 'need for cognition', a trait reflecting preference for effortful cognition. Importantly, only psychoticism was also negatively correlated with activation in the subgenual cingulate cortex (SCC), a brain area implicated in empathic concern and social emotions such as guilt, during counterintuitive utilitarian judgments. Our findings suggest that when individuals reach highly counterintuitive utilitarian conclusions, this need not reflect greater engagement in explicit moral deliberation. It may rather reflect a lack of empathic concern, and diminished aversion to harming others.
Project description:Is it permissible to harm one to save many? Classic moral dilemmas are often defined by the conflict between a putatively rational response to maximize aggregate welfare (i.e., the utilitarian judgment) and an emotional aversion to harm (i.e., the non-utilitarian judgment). Here, we address two questions. First, what specific aspect of emotional responding is relevant for these judgments? Second, is this aspect of emotional responding selectively reduced in utilitarians or enhanced in non-utilitarians? The results reveal a key relationship between moral judgment and empathic concern in particular (i.e., feelings of warmth and compassion in response to someone in distress). Utilitarian participants showed significantly reduced empathic concern on an independent empathy measure. These findings therefore reveal diminished empathic concern in utilitarian moral judges.
Project description:This study investigated moral judgment in children with high-functioning autism and their cooperation in prisoner's dilemma game with partners of different moralities. Thirty-eight 6- to 12-year-old high-functioning autistic (HFA) children and 31 typically developing (TD) children were recruited. Children were asked to judge story protagonists' morality. After making this moral judgment correctly, they were asked to play with the morally nice and the morally naughty child in a repeated prisoner's dilemma game. Results showed that both HFA and TD children made correct moral judgments, and that HFA children might even have more rigid criteria for what constitutes morally naughty acts. HFA children's cooperation did not differ depending on the morality of the interaction partner, while TD children showed higher cooperation when interacting with the morally nice than the morally naughty child did. Thus, partner's morality did influence TD children's but not HFA children's subsequent cooperation.
Project description:In the last decade, scientific literature provided solid evidence of cognitive deficits in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients and their effects on end-life choices. However, moral cognition and judgment are still poorly investigated in this population. Here we aimed at evaluating both socio-cognitive and socio-affective components of moral reasoning in a sample of 28 ALS patients. Patients underwent clinical and neuropsychological evaluation including basic cognitive and social cognition measures. Additionally, we administered an experimental task including moral dilemmas, with instrumental and incidental conditions. Patients' performances were compared with a control group [healthy control (HC)], including 36 age-, gender-, and education-matched healthy subjects. Despite that the judgment pattern was comparable in ALS and HC, patients resulted less prone to carry out a moral transgression compared to HC. Additionally, ALS patients displayed higher levels of moral permissibility and lower emotional arousal, with similar levels of engagement in both instrumental and incidental conditions. Our findings expanded the current literature about cognitive deficits in ALS, showing that in judging moral actions, patients may present non-utilitarian choices and emotion flattening. Such a decision-making profile may have relevant implications in applying moral principles in real-life situations and for the judgment of end-of-life treatments and care in clinical settings.
Project description:A growing body of research has focused on so-called 'utilitarian' judgments in moral dilemmas in which participants have to choose whether to sacrifice one person in order to save the lives of a greater number. However, the relation between such 'utilitarian' judgments and genuine utilitarian impartial concern for the greater good remains unclear. Across four studies, we investigated the relationship between 'utilitarian' judgment in such sacrificial dilemmas and a range of traits, attitudes, judgments and behaviors that either reflect or reject an impartial concern for the greater good of all. In Study 1, we found that rates of 'utilitarian' judgment were associated with a broadly immoral outlook concerning clear ethical transgressions in a business context, as well as with sub-clinical psychopathy. In Study 2, we found that 'utilitarian' judgment was associated with greater endorsement of rational egoism, less donation of money to a charity, and less identification with the whole of humanity, a core feature of classical utilitarianism. In Studies 3 and 4, we found no association between 'utilitarian' judgments in sacrificial dilemmas and characteristic utilitarian judgments relating to assistance to distant people in need, self-sacrifice and impartiality, even when the utilitarian justification for these judgments was made explicit and unequivocal. This lack of association remained even when we controlled for the antisocial element in 'utilitarian' judgment. Taken together, these results suggest that there is very little relation between sacrificial judgments in the hypothetical dilemmas that dominate current research, and a genuine utilitarian approach to ethics.
Project description:We propose a revised set of moral dilemmas for studies on moral judgment. We selected a total of 46 moral dilemmas available in the literature and fine-tuned them in terms of four conceptual factors (Personal Force, Benefit Recipient, Evitability, and Intention) and methodological aspects of the dilemma formulation (word count, expression style, question formats) that have been shown to influence moral judgment. Second, we obtained normative codings of arousal and valence for each dilemma showing that emotional arousal in response to moral dilemmas depends crucially on the factors Personal Force, Benefit Recipient, and Intentionality. Third, we validated the dilemma set confirming that people's moral judgment is sensitive to all four conceptual factors, and to their interactions. Results are discussed in the context of this field of research, outlining also the relevance of our RT effects for the Dual Process account of moral judgment. Finally, we suggest tentative theoretical avenues for future testing, particularly stressing the importance of the factor Intentionality in moral judgment. Additionally, due to the importance of cross-cultural studies in the quest for universals in human moral cognition, we provide the new set dilemmas in six languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Catalan, and Danish). The norming values provided here refer to the Spanish dilemma set.