Decoding moral judgments from neural representations of intentions
Jorie Koster-Hale, Rebecca Saxe, James Dungan, and Liane L. Young
PNAS April 2, 2013 vol. 110 no. 14 5648-5653
Intentional harms are typically judged to be morally worse than accidental harms. Distinguishing between intentional harms and accidents depends on the capacity for mental state reasoning (i.e., reasoning about beliefs and intentions), which is supported by a group of brain regions including the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ). Prior research has found that interfering with activity in RTPJ can impair mental state reasoning for moral judgment and that high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders make moral judgments based less on intent information than neurotypical participants. Three experiments, using multivoxel pattern analysis, find that (i) in neurotypical adults, the RTPJ shows reliable and distinct spatial patterns of responses across voxels for intentional vs. accidental harms, and (ii) individual differences in this neural pattern predict differences in participants’ moral judgments. These effects are specific to RTPJ. By contrast, (iii) this distinction was absent in adults with autism spectrum disorders. We conclude that multivoxel pattern analysis can detect features of mental state representations (e.g., intent), and that the corresponding neural patterns are behaviorally and clinically relevant.