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Arrested development: early prefrontal lesions impair the maturation of moral judgement

Bradley C. Taber-Thomas, Erik W. Asp, Michael Koenigs, Matthew Sutterer, Steven W. Anderson, Daniel Tranel
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awt377 1254-1261 First published online: 11 February 2014


Learning to make moral judgements based on considerations beyond self-interest is a fundamental aspect of moral development. A deficit in such learning is associated with poor socialization and criminal behaviour. The neural systems required for the acquisition and maturation of moral competency are not well understood. Here we show in a unique sample of neurological patients that focal lesions involving ventromedial prefrontal cortex, acquired during development, result in an abnormally egocentric pattern of moral judgement. In response to simple hypothetical moral scenarios, the patients were more likely than comparison participants to endorse self-interested actions that involved breaking moral rules or physically harming others in order to benefit themselves. This pattern (which we also found in subjects with psychopathy) differs from that of patients with adult-onset ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions—the latter group showed normal rejection of egocentric rule violations. This novel contrast of patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions acquired during development versus during adulthood yields new evidence suggesting that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a critical neural substrate for the acquisition and maturation of moral competency that goes beyond self-interest to consider the welfare of others. Disruption to this affective neural system early in life interrupts moral development.

  • prefrontal cortex
  • moral development
  • moral judgement
  • emotion
  • egocentric
  • Abbreviation
    prefrontal cortex
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