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Front. Neurosci. | doi: 10.3389/fnins.2019.01021

Electrophysiological Mechanisms Underlying Time-Dependent Assessments in Moral Decision-Making

  • 1School of Business, Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea
  • 2SKKU Institute for Convergence, Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea

Human decision-making that involves moral dilemmas is a complex process, as individuals try to adhere to their moral values while their actual decisions can be influenced by several situational constraints. When facing a moral conflict that can bring a gain or loss for a decision-maker but a corresponding loss or gain for others, the decision-maker’s choice of resolution strategy lies in its relating to gain-loss asymmetry by placing greater utility weight on his or her immediate gains and delayed losses. Although many neuroimaging studies have unveiled the neural mechanisms that underlie moral decision-making, little attention has been paid to the temporal dynamics of how a decision-maker assesses utility weights differently for a moral (or adaptive) choice that will bring loss (or gain) to himself (and others) when the outcome will be realized in the near versus distant future. This study identifies the electrophysiological mechanisms of time-dependent assessment in individuals’ moral conflict resolution strategies. Twenty-two participants were given a set of moral dilemmas with time intervals that varied from the near future to the distant future. Participants chose between two conflicting options: a self-interest-seeking immoral choice (adaptive) and a principled moral choice (moral). Event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded, and movement-related potentials (MRPs) were analyzed by being response-locked to individual moral choices. Behavioral results showed that participants took more time to respond and were more likely to make adaptive choices under the near-future condition. When the participants faced moral dilemmas, their brain waves manifested medial frontal negativity (MFN) at early-stage ERP of 200-400ms, possibly reflecting an internal moral conflict. Participants then exhibited larger late positive potentials (LPP) under the near-future condition. In addition, greater effort in implementing motor preparation was found under the near-future condition than under the distant future condition, as supported by the larger Bereitschaftspotential (BP) in the anterior areas. Our results illustrate the temporal dynamics of the electrophysiological mechanisms that underlie time-dependent assessments in moral decision-making, as human brains discount the decision utility of the moral outcomes that will occur in the distant future.

Keywords: moral decision-making, event-related potential, Movement-related potential, Gain-loss asymmetry, neuroeconomics

Received: 15 Mar 2019; Accepted: 09 Sep 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Yun, Zhang and Lee. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Prof. Eun-Ju Lee, SKKU Institute for Convergence, Sungkyunkwan University, Suwon, Seobu-ro 2066, Gyeonggi, South Korea, elee9@skku.edu