Publications by authors named "Liane Young"

78 Publications

An earlier role for intent in children's partner choice versus punishment.

J Exp Psychol Gen 2021 Aug 30. Epub 2021 Aug 30.

Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Among the many factors that influence our moral judgments, two are especially important: whether the person caused a bad outcome and whether they intended for it to happen. Notably, the weight accorded to these factors in adulthood varies by the type of judgment being made. For punishment decisions, intentions and outcomes carry relatively equal weight; for partner choice decisions (i.e., deciding whether or not to interact with someone again), intentions are weighted much more heavily. These behavioral differences in punishment and partner choice judgments may also reflect more fundamental differences in the cognitive processes supporting these decisions. Exploring how punishment and partner choice emerge in development provides important and unique insight into these processes as they emerge and mature. Here, we explore the developmental emergence of punishment and partner choice decisions in 4- to 9-year-old children. Given the importance of intentions for partner choice decisions-from both theoretical and empirical perspectives-we targeted the sensitivity of these two responses to others' intentions as well as outcomes caused. Our punishment results replicate past work: Young children are more focused on outcomes caused and become increasingly sensitive to intentions with age. In contrast, partner choice judgments exhibit sensitivity to intentions at an earlier age than punishment judgments, manifesting as earlier partner choice in cases of attempted violations. These results reveal distinct developmental trajectories for punishment and partner choice judgments, with implications for our understanding of the processes underlying these two responses as well as the development of moral judgment more broadly. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0001093DOI Listing
August 2021

Situating and extending the sense of should: Reply to comments on "The sense of should: A biologically-based framework for modeling social pressure".

Phys Life Rev 2021 Jul 5;37:10-16. Epub 2021 Mar 5.

Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA; Psychiatric Neuroimaging Division, Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA; Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, USA.

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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.plrev.2021.01.001DOI Listing
July 2021

The moral, or the story? Changing children's distributive justice preferences through social communication.

Cognition 2020 12 10;205:104441. Epub 2020 Oct 10.

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Boston University, 64 Cummington St., Boston, MA 02215, United States of America.

Can social communication alter children's preexisting inclinations toward equality-based or merit-based forms of resource distribution? Six- to eight-year-old children's (N = 248) fairness preferences were evaluated with third-party distribution tasks before and after an intervention. Study 1 indicated that stories about beavers dividing wood had no impact on children's fairness preferences, while Study 2 indicated that brief, direct testimony was highly influential. Study 3 matched storybooks and testimony in content, with each discussing a situation resembling the distribution task, and both formats exerted a significant impact on children's fairness preferences that persisted across several weeks. There were some indications that interventions preaching the superiority of equality-based fairness were particularly effective, but there were no differences between reason-based and emotion-based interventions. Overall, storybooks and testimony can powerfully and enduringly change children's existing distributive justice preferences, as long as the moral lessons that are conveyed are easily transferable to children's real-world contexts.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2020.104441DOI Listing
December 2020

Theory of Mind Following the Violation of Strong and Weak Prior Beliefs.

Cereb Cortex 2021 01;31(2):884-898

Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA.

Recent work in psychology and neuroscience has revealed differences in impression updating across social distance and group membership. Observers tend to maintain prior impressions of close (vs. distant) and ingroup (vs. outgroup) others in light of new information, and this belief maintenance is at times accompanied by increased activity in Theory of Mind regions. It remains an open question whether differences in the strength of prior beliefs, in a context absent social motivation, contribute to neural differences during belief updating. We devised a functional magnetic resonance imaging study to isolate the impact of experimentally induced prior beliefs on mentalizing activity. Participants learned about targets who performed 2 or 4 same-valenced behaviors (leading to the formation of weak or strong priors), before performing 2 counter-valenced behaviors. We found a greater change in activity in dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) and right temporo-parietal junction following the violation of strong versus weak priors, and a greater change in activity in DMPFC and left temporo-parietal junction following the violation of positive versus negative priors. These results indicate that differences in neural responses to unexpected behaviors from close versus distant others, and ingroup versus outgroup members, may be driven in part by differences in the strength of prior beliefs.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhaa263DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7786349PMC
January 2021

An association between biased impression updating and relationship facilitation: A behavioral and fMRI investigation.

J Exp Soc Psychol 2020 Mar 23;87. Epub 2019 Nov 23.

Boston College, United States of America.

Is ingroup bias associated with any benefit for maintaining close relationships? We examined the link between biased impression updating for ingroup members (i.e., friends) and relationship maintenance, as measured by the number of friends participants reported having (Studies 1 and 2). We also investigated the underlying neural basis of this possible effect, focusing on activity in the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ), a region of the social brain involved in moral updating (Study 2). Specifically, we tested whether selectively discounting negative information about close others, manifested in reduced impression updating, and indexed by reduced RTPJ activity, is related to maintaining close relationships. In Study 1, after imagining a friend and a stranger performing different positive and negative behaviors, participants who were reluctant to update how close they felt to their friend (friend-closeness) reported having more friends in real life. In Study 2, participants were led to believe that a friend and a stranger gave money to them or took money away from them, while they were in the scanner. Participants who engaged in less negative updating of friends versus strangers reported having more friends. Participants who engaged in less friend-closeness updating also showed reduced RTPJ activity when their friend took money from them, and this neural pattern was associated with reports of having more friends. Together, these findings suggest that selectively discounting close others' negative behavior is linked to maintaining close relationships, indicating a potential social benefit of ingroup bias.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2019.103916DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7453880PMC
March 2020

The role of right temporoparietal junction in processing social prediction error across relationship contexts.

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 2021 Aug;16(8):772-781

Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA.

How do people update their impressions of close others? Although people may be motivated to maintain their positive impressions, they may also update their impressions when their expectations are violated (i.e. prediction error). Combining neuroimaging and computational modeling, we test the hypothesis that brain regions associated with theory of mind, especially right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ), underpin both motivated impression maintenance and impression updating evoked by prediction error. Participants had money either given to or taken away from them by a friend or a stranger and were then asked to rate each partner on trustworthiness and closeness across trials. Overall, participants engaged in less impression updating for friends vs strangers. Decreased rTPJ activity in response to a friend's negative behavior (taking money) was associated with reduced negative updating and increased positive ratings of the friend. However, to the extent that participants did update their impressions (more negative ratings) of friends, this behavioral pattern was explained by greater prediction error and greater rTPJ activity. These findings suggest that rTPJ recruitment represents the integration of prediction error signals and the capacity to overcome people's motivation to maintain positive impressions of friends in the face of conflicting evidence.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsaa072DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8343573PMC
August 2021

Moral Values Reveal the Causality Implicit in Verb Meaning.

Cogn Sci 2020 06;44(6):e12838

Psychology Department, Boston College.

Prior work has found that moral values that build and bind groups-that is, the binding values of ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and preservation of purity-are linked to blaming people who have been harmed. The present research investigated whether people's endorsement of binding values predicts their assignment of the causal locus of harmful events to the victims of the events. We used an implicit causality task from psycholinguistics in which participants read a sentence in the form "SUBJECT verbed OBJECT because…" where male and female proper names occupy the SUBJECT and OBJECT position. The participants were asked to predict the pronoun that follows "because"-the referent to the subject or object-which indicates their intuition about the likely cause of the event. We also collected explicit judgments of causal contributions and measured participants' moral values to investigate the relationship between moral values and the causal interpretation of events. Using two verb sets and two independent replications (N = 459, 249, 788), we found that greater endorsement of binding values was associated with a higher likelihood of selecting the object as the cause for harmful events in the implicit causality task, a result consistent with, and supportive of, previous moral psychological work on victim blaming. Endorsement of binding values also predicted explicit causal attributions to victims. Overall, these findings indicate that moral values that support the group rather than the individual reliably predict that people shift the causal locus of harmful events to those affected by the harms.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12838DOI Listing
June 2020

Theory of mind network activity is associated with metaethical judgment: An item analysis.

Neuropsychologia 2020 06 29;143:107475. Epub 2020 Apr 29.

Boston College, Department of Psychology, Chestnut Hill, MA, 02467, USA.

The theory of mind network (ToMN) is a set of brain regions activated by a variety of social tasks. Recent work has proposed that these associations with ToMN activity may relate to a common underlying computation: processing prediction error in social contexts. The present work presents evidence consistent with this hypothesis, using a fine-grained item analysis to examine the relationship between ToMN activity and variance in stimulus features. We used an existing dataset (consisting of statements about morals, facts, and preferences) to examine the variability in ToMN activity elicited by moral statements, using metaethical judgments (i.e. judgments of how objective/subjective morals are) as a proxy for their predictability/support by social consensus. Study 1 validated expected patterns of behavioral judgments in our stimuli set, and Study 2 associated by-stimulus estimates of metaethical judgment with ToMN activity, showing that ToMN activity was negatively associated with objective morals and positively associated with subjective morals. Whole brain analyses indicated that these associations were strongest in bilateral temporoparietal junction (TPJ). We also observed additional by-stimulus associations with ToMN, including positive associations with the presence of a person (across morals, facts, and preferences), a negative association with agreement (among morals only), and a positive association with mental state inference (in preferences only, across 3 independent measures and behavioral samples). We discuss these findings in the context of recent predictive processing models, and highlight how predictive models may facilitate new perspectives on both metaethics and the nature of distinctions between social domains (e.g. morals vs. preferences).
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2020.107475DOI Listing
June 2020

The sense of should: A biologically-based framework for modeling social pressure.

Phys Life Rev 2021 Mar 23;36:100-136. Epub 2020 Jan 23.

Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA; Psychiatric Neuroimaging Division, Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA; Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, USA.

What is social pressure, and how could it be adaptive to conform to others' expectations? Existing accounts highlight the importance of reputation and social sanctions. Yet, conformist behavior is multiply determined: sometimes, a person desires social regard, but at other times she feels obligated to behave a certain way, regardless of any reputational benefit-i.e. she feels a sense of should. We develop a formal model of this sense of should, beginning from a minimal set of biological premises: that the brain is predictive, that prediction error has a metabolic cost, and that metabolic costs are prospectively avoided. It follows that unpredictable environments impose metabolic costs, and in social environments these costs can be reduced by conforming to others' expectations. We elaborate on a sense of should's benefits and subjective experience, its likely developmental trajectory, and its relation to embodied mental inference. From this individualistic metabolic strategy, the emergent dynamics unify social phenomenon ranging from status quo biases, to communication and motivated cognition. We offer new solutions to long-studied problems (e.g. altruistic behavior), and show how compliance with arbitrary social practices is compelled without explicit sanctions. Social pressure may provide a foundation in individuals on which societies can be built.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.plrev.2020.01.004DOI Listing
March 2021

What We Owe to Family: The Impact of Special Obligations on Moral Judgment.

Psychol Sci 2020 03 28;31(3):227-242. Epub 2020 Jan 28.

Department of Psychology, Boston College.

Although people often recognize the moral value of impartial behavior (i.e., not favoring specific individuals), it is unclear when, if ever, people recognize the moral value of partiality. The current studies investigated whether information about special obligations to specific individuals, particularly kin, is integrated into moral judgments. In Studies 1 and 2, agents who helped a stranger were judged as more morally good and trustworthy than those who helped kin, but agents who helped a stranger, instead of kin were judged as less morally good and trustworthy than those who did the opposite. In Studies 3 and 4, agents who simply neglected a stranger were judged as less morally bad and untrustworthy than those who neglected kin. Study 4 also demonstrated that the violation (vs. fulfillment) of perceived obligations underlaid all judgment patterns. Study 5 demonstrated boundary conditions: When occupying roles requiring impartiality, agents who helped a stranger instead of kin were judged as more morally good and trustworthy than agents who did the opposite. These findings illuminate the importance of obligations in structuring moral judgment.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797619900321DOI Listing
March 2020

The Psychology of Motivated versus Rational Impression Updating.

Trends Cogn Sci 2020 02 6;24(2):101-111. Epub 2020 Jan 6.

Department of Psychology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA.

People's beliefs about others are often impervious to new evidence: we continue to cooperate with ingroup defectors and refuse to see outgroup enemies as rehabilitated. Resistance to updating beliefs with new information has historically been interpreted as reflecting bias or motivated cognition, but recent work in Bayesian inference suggests that belief maintenance can be compatible with procedural rationality. We propose a mentalizing account of belief maintenance, which holds that protecting strong priors by generating alternative explanations for surprising information involves more mentalizing about the target than nonrational discounting. We review the neuroscientific evidence supporting this approach, and discuss how both types of processing can lead to fitness benefits.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2019.12.001DOI Listing
February 2020

Ideological differences in the expanse of the moral circle.

Nat Commun 2019 09 26;10(1):4389. Epub 2019 Sep 26.

University of Utah, Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building, 1655 East Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City, UT, 84112, USA.

Do clashes between ideologies reflect policy differences or something more fundamental? The present research suggests they reflect core psychological differences such that liberals express compassion toward less structured and more encompassing entities (i.e., universalism), whereas conservatives express compassion toward more well-defined and less encompassing entities (i.e., parochialism). Here we report seven studies illustrating universalist versus parochial differences in compassion. Studies 1a-1c show that liberals, relative to conservatives, express greater moral concern toward friends relative to family, and the world relative to the nation. Studies 2a-2b demonstrate these universalist versus parochial preferences extend toward simple shapes depicted as proxies for loose versus tight social circles. Using stimuli devoid of political relevance demonstrates that the universalist-parochialist distinction does not simply reflect differing policy preferences. Studies 3a-3b indicate these universalist versus parochial tendencies extend to humans versus nonhumans more generally, demonstrating the breadth of these psychological differences.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-12227-0DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6763434PMC
September 2019

The Acquisition of Person Knowledge.

Annu Rev Psychol 2020 01 25;71:613-634. Epub 2019 Sep 25.

Department of Psychology, Boston College, Boston, Massachusetts 02467, USA; email:

How do we learn what we know about others? Answering this question requires understanding the perceptual mechanisms with which we recognize individuals and their actions, and the processes by which the resulting perceptual representations lead to inferences about people's mental states and traits. This review discusses recent behavioral, neural, and computational studies that have contributed to this broad research program, encompassing both social perception and social cognition.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010419-050844DOI Listing
January 2020

Asking 'why?' enhances theory of mind when evaluating harm but not purity violations.

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 2019 07;14(7):699-708

Department of Psychology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, 02467, USA.

Recent work in psychology and neuroscience has revealed important differences in the cognitive processes underlying judgments of harm and purity violations. In particular, research has demonstrated that whether a violation was committed intentionally vs accidentally has a larger impact on moral judgments of harm violations (e.g. assault) than purity violations (e.g. incest). Here, we manipulate the instructions provided to participants for a moral judgment task to further probe the boundary conditions of this intent effect. Specifically, we instructed participants undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging to attend to either a violator's mental states (why they acted that way) or their low-level behavior (how they acted) before delivering moral judgments. Results revealed that task instructions enhanced rather than diminished differences between how harm and purity violations are processed in brain regions for mental state reasoning or theory of mind. In particular, activity in the right temporoparietal junction increased when participants were instructed to attend to why vs how a violator acted to a greater extent for harm than for purity violations. This result constrains the potential accounts of why intentions matter less for purity violations compared to harm violations and provide further insight into the differences between distinct moral norms.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsz048DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6778829PMC
July 2019

Specks of Dirt and Tons of Pain: Dosage Distinguishes Impurity From Harm.

Psychol Sci 2019 08 26;30(8):1151-1160. Epub 2019 Jun 26.

2 Department of Psychology, Boston College.

Levels of moral condemnation often vary with outcome severity (e.g., extreme destruction is morally worse than moderate damage), but this is not always true. We investigated whether judgments of purity transgressions are more or less sensitive to variation in dosage than judgments of harm transgressions. In three studies, adults ( = 426) made moral evaluations of harm and purity transgressions that systematically varied in dosage (frequency or magnitude). Pairs of low-dosage and high-dosage transgressions were presented such that the same sets of modifiers (e.g., "occasionally" vs. "regularly," "small" vs. "large") or amounts (e.g., "millimeter" vs. "centimeter") were reused across moral domains. Statistical interactions between domain and dosage indicated robust distinctions between the perceived wrongness of high-dosage and low-dosage harms, whereas moral evaluations of impure acts were considerably less influenced by dosage. Our findings support the existence of a cognitive distinction between purity-based and harm-based morals and challenge current wisdom regarding relationships between intentions and outcomes in moral judgment.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797619855382DOI Listing
August 2019

Aversion to playing God and moral condemnation of technology and science.

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 2019 04;374(1771):20180041

2 Boston College , Chestnut Hill, MA , USA.

This research provides, to our knowledge, the first systematic empirical investigation of people's aversion to playing God. Seven studies validate this construct and show its association with negative moral judgements of science and technology. Motivated by three nationally representative archival datasets that demonstrate this relationship, studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that people condemn scientific procedures they perceive to involve playing God. Studies 3-5 demonstrate that dispositional aversion to playing God corresponds to decreased willingness to fund the National Science Foundation and lower donations to organizations that support novel scientific procedures. Studies 6a and 6b demonstrate that people judge a novel (versus established) scientific practice to involve more playing God and to be more morally unacceptable. Finally, study 7 demonstrates that reminding people of an existing incident of playing God reduces concerns towards scientific practices. Together, these findings provide novel evidence for the impact of people's aversion to playing God on science and policy-related decision-making. This article is part of the theme issue 'From social brains to social robots: applying neurocognitive insights to human-robot interaction'.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2018.0041DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6452244PMC
April 2019

A role for the medial temporal lobe subsystem in guiding prosociality: the effect of episodic processes on willingness to help others.

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 2019 05;14(4):397-410

Department of Psychology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA.

Why are we willing to help others? Recent behavioral work on episodic processes (i.e. the ability to represent an event that is specific in time and place) suggests that imagining and remembering scenes of helping a person in need increases intentions to help. Here, we provide insight into the cognitive and neural mechanisms that enhance prosocial intentions via episodic simulation and memory. In Experiment 1, we scanned participants using functional neuroimaging as they imagined and remembered helping episodes, and completed non-episodic control conditions accounting for exposure to the story of need and conceptual priming of helping. Analyses revealed that activity in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) subsystem, as well as the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ) predicted the effect of conditions on the strength of prosocial intentions. In Experiment 2, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation to disrupt activity in the RTPJ, and better isolate the contribution of MTL subsystem to prosocial intentions. The effect of conditions on willingness to help remained even when activity in the RTPJ was disrupted, suggesting that activity in the MTL subsystem may primarily support this prosocial effect. It seems our willingness to help may be guided, in part, by how easily we can construct imagined and remembered helping episodes.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsz014DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6523441PMC
May 2019

Partisan mathematical processing of political polling statistics: It's the expectations that count.

Cognition 2019 05 12;186:95-107. Epub 2019 Feb 12.

Department of Psychology, Boston College, United States.

In this research, we investigated voters' mathematical processing of election-related information before and after the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections. We presented voters with mental math problems based on fictional polling results, and asked participants who they intended to vote for and who they expected to win. We found that committed voters (in both 2012 and 2016) demonstrated wishful thinking, with inflated expectations that their preferred candidate would win. When performing mathematical operations on polling information, voters in 2012 and 2016 deflated support for the opponent. Underestimation of the opponent was found to be absent among the participants who did not expect their preferred candidate to win. Identical experiments conducted after the elections revealed that partisan mathematical biases largely disappeared in favor of estimates in alignment with reality. Results indicate that mathematical processing of political polling data is biased by people's voting intentions and wishful thinking, and, crucially, by their expectations about the likely or actual state of the world.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2019.02.002DOI Listing
May 2019

Neural substrates for moral judgments of psychological versus physical harm.

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 2018 05;13(5):460-470

Department of Psychology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA.

While we may think about harm as primarily being about physical injury, harm can also take the form of negative psychological impact. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we examined the extent to which moral judgments of physical and psychological harms are processed similarly, focusing on brain regions implicated in mental state reasoning or theory of mind, a key cognitive process for moral judgment. First, univariate analyses reveal item-specific features that lead to greater recruitment of theory of mind regions for psychological harm versus physical harm. Second, multivariate pattern analyses reveal sensitivity to the psychological/physical distinction in two regions implicated in theory of mind: the right temporoparietal junction and the precuneus. Third, we find no reliable differences between neurotypical adults and adults with autism spectrum disorder with regard to neural activity related to theory of mind during moral evaluations of psychological and physical harm. Altogether, these results reveal neural sensitivity to the distinction between psychological harm and physical harm.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsy029DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6007614PMC
May 2018

My mind, your mind, and God's mind: How children and adults conceive of different agents' moral beliefs.

Br J Dev Psychol 2018 09 16;36(3):467-481. Epub 2018 Jan 16.

Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, USA.

Extending prior research on belief attributions, we investigated the extent to which 5- to 8-year-olds and adults distinguish their beliefs and other humans' beliefs from God's beliefs. In Study 1, children reported that all agents held the same beliefs, whereas adults drew greater distinctions among agents. For example, adults reported that God was less likely than humans to view behaviors as morally acceptable. Study 2 additionally investigated attributions of beliefs about controversial behaviours (e.g., telling prosocial lies) and belief stability. These data replicated the main results from Study 1 and additionally revealed that adults (but not children) reported that God was less likely than any other agent to think that controversial behaviours were morally acceptable. Furthermore, across ages, participants reported that another person's beliefs were more likely to change than either God's beliefs or their own beliefs. We discuss implications for theories regarding belief attributions and for religious and moral cognition. Statement of contribution What is already known on this subject Preschoolers can attribute different beliefs to different humans Children and adults attribute greater cognitive capacities to God than to humans What the present study adds Children attribute the same moral beliefs to God and humans Adults distinguish among different agents' minds when attributing moral beliefs Developmental differences are less pronounced in judgements of belief stability.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bjdp.12231DOI Listing
September 2018

Not as distinct as you think: Reasons to doubt that morality comprises a unified and objective conceptual category.

Behav Brain Sci 2018 01;41:e114

Department of Psychology,Boston College,Chestnut Hill,MA

That morality comprises a distinct and objective conceptual category is a critical claim for Stanford's target article. We dispute this claim. Statistical conclusions about a distinct moral domain were not justified in prior work, on account of the "stimuli-as-fixed-effects" fallacy. Furthermore, we have found that, behaviorally and neurally, morals share more in common with preferences than facts.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X18000195DOI Listing
January 2018

Moral imagination: Facilitating prosocial decision-making through scene imagery and theory of mind.

Cognition 2018 02 24;171:180-193. Epub 2017 Nov 24.

Department of Psychology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, United States.

How we imagine and subjectively experience the future can inform how we make decisions in the present. Here, we examined a prosocial effect of imagining future episodes in motivating moral decisions about helping others in need, as well as the underlying cognitive mechanisms. Across three experiments we found that people are more willing to help others in specific situations after imagining helping them in those situations. Manipulating the spatial representation of imagined future episodes in particular was effective at increasing intentions to help others, suggesting that scene imagery plays an important role in the prosocial effect of episodic simulation. Path modeling analyses revealed that episodic simulation interacts with theory of mind in facilitating prosocial responses but can also operate independently. Moreover, we found that our manipulations of the imagined helping episode increased actual prosocial behavior, which also correlated with changes in reported willingness to help. Based on these findings, we propose a new model that begins to capture the multifaceted mechanisms by which episodic simulation contributes to prosocial decision-making, highlighting boundaries and promising future directions to explore. Implications for research in moral cognition, imagination, and patients with impairments in episodic simulation are discussed.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2017.11.004DOI Listing
February 2018

Mentalizing regions represent distributed, continuous, and abstract dimensions of others' beliefs.

Neuroimage 2017 11 12;161:9-18. Epub 2017 Aug 12.

Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.

The human capacity to reason about others' minds includes making causal inferences about intentions, beliefs, values, and goals. Previous fMRI research has suggested that a network of brain regions, including bilateral temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), superior temporal sulcus (STS), and medial prefrontal-cortex (MPFC), are reliably recruited for mental state reasoning. Here, in two fMRI experiments, we investigate the representational content of these regions. Building on existing computational and neural evidence, we hypothesized that social brain regions contain at least two functionally and spatially distinct components: one that represents information related to others' motivations and values, and another that represents information about others' beliefs and knowledge. Using multi-voxel pattern analysis, we find evidence that motivational versus epistemic features are independently represented by theory of mind (ToM) regions: RTPJ contains information about the justification of the belief, bilateral TPJ represents the modality of the source of knowledge, and VMPFC represents the valence of the resulting emotion. These representations are found only in regions implicated in social cognition and predict behavioral responses at the level of single items. We argue that cortical regions implicated in mental state inference contain complementary, but distinct, representations of epistemic and motivational features of others' beliefs, and that, mirroring the processes observed in sensory systems, social stimuli are represented in distinct and distributed formats across the human brain.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.08.026DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5696012PMC
November 2017

Examining overlap in behavioral and neural representations of morals, facts, and preferences.

J Exp Psychol Gen 2017 Nov 14;146(11):1586-1605. Epub 2017 Aug 14.

Department of Psychology, Boston College.

Metaethical judgments refer to judgments about the information expressed by moral claims. Moral objectivists generally believe that moral claims are akin to facts, whereas moral subjectivists generally believe that moral claims are more akin to preferences. Evidence from developmental and social psychology has generally favored an objectivist view; however, this work has typically relied on few examples, and analyses have disallowed statistical generalizations beyond these few stimuli. The present work addresses whether morals are represented as fact-like or preference-like, using behavioral and neuroimaging methods, in combination with statistical techniques that can (a) generalize beyond our sample stimuli, and (b) test whether particular item features are associated with neural activity. Behaviorally, and contrary to prior work, morals were perceived as more preference-like than fact-like. Neurally, morals and preferences elicited common magnitudes and spatial patterns of activity, particularly within the dorsal-medial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), a critical region for social cognition. This common DMPFC activity for morals and preferences was present across whole-brain conjunctions, and in individually localized functional regions of interest (targeting the theory of mind network). By contrast, morals and facts did not elicit any neural activity in common. Follow-up item analyses suggested that the activity elicited in common by morals and preferences was explained by their shared tendency to evoke representations of mental states. We conclude that morals are represented as far more subjective than prior work has suggested. This conclusion is consistent with recent theoretical research, which has argued that morality is fundamentally about regulating social relationships. (PsycINFO Database Record
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000350DOI Listing
November 2017

The behavioral and neural signatures of distinct conceptions of fairness.

Soc Neurosci 2018 08 6;13(4):399-415. Epub 2017 Jun 6.

b Department of Psychology , Boston College , Chestnut Hill , MA , USA.

Adhering to standard procedures (impartiality), returning favors (reciprocity) or giving based on individuals' needs (charity) may all be considered moral and/or fair ways to allocate resources. However, these allocation behaviors may be perceived as differently motivated, and their moral evaluation may make different demands on theory of mind (ToM) - the capacity to process information about mental states, including motives. In Studies 1 and 2, we examined participants' moral judgments of allocations based on (1) impartiality, (2) reciprocity, (3) charity and (4) unspecified criteria as depicted in vignettes, as well as participants' perceptions of allocators' motivations. In Study 3, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate how brain regions for ToM were recruited during moral evaluation of the same vignettes. Reciprocity and charity were processed similarly, in that they recruited ToM regions to the same extent, i.e., precuneus, dorsal and ventral medial prefrontal cortex and left temporoparietal junction (LTPJ). In turn, impartiality and the unspecified condition were processed similarly, recruiting the same ToM regions to a lesser extent. Nevertheless, reciprocity elicited greater activity relative to impartiality and unspecified in the ToM regions of interest. Overall, evaluations of different allocation behaviors depend differently on ToM, with charity and reciprocity eliciting greater attention to individuals' unique states and motivations.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17470919.2017.1333452DOI Listing
August 2018

Neuroanatomical correlates of forgiving unintentional harms.

Sci Rep 2017 04 6;7:45967. Epub 2017 Apr 6.

Department of Applied Psychology: Health, Development, Enhancement and Intervention, University of Vienna, Austria.

Mature moral judgments rely on the consideration of a perpetrator's mental state as well as harmfulness of the outcomes produced. Prior work has focused primarily on the functional correlates of how intent information is neurally represented for moral judgments, but few studies have investigated whether individual differences in neuroanatomy can also explain variation in moral judgments. In the current study, we conducted voxel-based morphometry analyses to address this question. We found that local grey matter volume in the left anterior superior temporal sulcus, a region in the functionally defined theory of mind or mentalizing network, was associated with the degree to which participants relied on information about innocent intentions to forgive accidental harms. Our findings provide further support for the key role of mentalizing in the forgiveness of accidental harms and contribute preliminary evidence for the neuroanatomical basis of individual differences in moral judgments.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/srep45967DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5382676PMC
April 2017

The relevance of moral norms in distinct relational contexts: Purity versus harm norms regulate self-directed actions.

PLoS One 2017 9;12(3):e0173405. Epub 2017 Mar 9.

Department of Psychology, Boston College, MA, United States of America.

Recent efforts to partition the space of morality have focused on the descriptive content of distinct moral domains (e.g., harm versus purity), or alternatively, the relationship between the perpetrator and victim of moral violations. Across three studies, we demonstrate that harm and purity norms are relevant in distinct relational contexts. Moral judgments of purity violations, compared to harm violations, are relatively more sensitive to the negative impact perpetrators have on themselves versus other victims (Study 1). This pattern replicates across a wide array of harm and purity violations varying in severity (Studies 2 and 3). Moreover, while perceptions of harm predict moral judgment consistently across relational contexts, perceptions of purity predict moral judgment more for self-directed actions, where perpetrators violate themselves, compared to dyadic actions, where perpetrators violate other victims (Study 3). Together, these studies reveal how an action's content and its relational context interact to influence moral judgment, providing novel insights into the adaptive functions of harm and purity norms.
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http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0173405PLOS
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5344389PMC
August 2017

The impact of testimony on children's moralization of novel actions.

Emotion 2017 08 13;17(5):811-827. Epub 2017 Feb 13.

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Boston University.

What leads children to moralize actions that cause no apparent harm? We hypothesized that adults' verbal instruction ("testimony"), as well as emotions such as disgust, would influence children's moralization of apparently harmless actions. To test this hypothesis, 7-year-old children were asked to render moral judgments of novel, seemingly victimless, body-directed or nature-directed actions after being exposed to adults' testimony or to an emotional induction. Study 1 demonstrated that children became more likely to judge actions as "wrong" upon being verbally presented with testimony about disgust or anger-but not upon being directly induced to feel disgusted. Study 2 established that principle-based testimony is an even more powerful source of moralization, and additionally found long-term retention of newly formed moral beliefs. These studies also indicated that children frequently lack introspective insight into the sources of their newly acquired moral reactions; they often invoked welfare-based concerns in their explanations regardless of experimental condition. In sum, this research demonstrates that children rapidly and enduringly moralize entirely unfamiliar, apparently innocuous actions upon exposure to a diverse array of morally relevant testimony. (PsycINFO Database Record
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000276DOI Listing
August 2017

Know thy enemy: Education about terrorism improves social attitudes toward terrorists.

J Exp Psychol Gen 2017 Mar 12;146(3):305-317. Epub 2017 Jan 12.

Department of Psychology.

Hatred of terrorists is an obstacle to the implementation of effective counterterrorism policies-it invites indiscriminate retaliation, whereas many of the greatest successes in counterterrorism have come from understanding terrorists' personal and political motivations. Drawing from psychological research, traditional prejudice reduction strategies are generally not well suited to the task of reducing hatred of terrorists. Instead, in 2 studies, we explored education's potential ability to reduce extreme negative attitudes toward terrorists. Study 1 compared students in a college course on terrorism (treatment) with wait-listed students, measuring prosocial attitudes toward a hypothetical terrorist. Initially, all students reported extremely negative attitudes; however, at the end of the semester, treatment students' attitudes were significantly improved. Study 2 replicated the effect within a sample of treatment and control classes drawn from universities across the United States. The present work was part of an ongoing research project, focusing on foreign policy and the perceived threat of terrorism; thus classes did not explicitly aim to reduce prejudice, making the effect of treatment somewhat surprising. One possibility is that learning about terrorists "crowds out" the initial pejorative associations-that is, the label terrorism may ultimately call more information to mind, diluting its initial negative associative links. Alternatively, students may learn to challenge how the label terrorist is being applied. In either case, learning about terrorism can decrease the extreme negative reactions it evokes, which is desirable if one wishes to implement effective counterterrorism policies. (PsycINFO Database Record
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000261DOI Listing
March 2017

The perceived stability and biological basis of religious beliefs, factual beliefs, and opinions.

J Exp Child Psychol 2017 04 2;156:82-98. Epub 2017 Jan 2.

Department of Psychology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA.

Previous work shows that children view group membership and psychological traits in essentialist terms, perceiving them to be both biologically determined and stable across time. To what extent might individuals view mental states such as beliefs similarly? Given that beliefs are often based on experience and can change across time, one hypothesis is that beliefs on the whole do not elicit essentialism. An alternative hypothesis, however, is that some beliefs may be perceived as inherited and stable over time-characteristics associated with essentialism. In three studies, we examined two aspects of psychological essentialism regarding three different types of beliefs (religious beliefs, factual beliefs, and opinions) in 8- to 10-year-old children and adults, asking whether beliefs are seen as (a) biologically based and/or (b) stable across time. Both children and adults distinguished among belief types when considering biology; opinions were perceived to be more rooted in biology than were other beliefs. By contrast, fewer consistent differences emerged when children and adults considered stability. For example, both children and adults perceived opinions and factual beliefs to be equally changeable. Finally, although children typically perceived beliefs to be more rooted in biology than adults, more specific patterns across belief types (e.g., perceiving opinions to be more rooted in biology than religious beliefs) remained relatively stable across age groups. Thus, development and social learning may play a larger role in perceptions of the biological component of essentialism than in judgments of particular beliefs. We discuss implications for literatures on essentialism, religious cognition, and social cognitive development.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2016.11.015DOI Listing
April 2017
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