text-only page produced automatically by LIFT Text Transcoder Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation Home National Science Foundation - Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences (SBE)
Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences (SBE)
design element
SBE Home
About SBE
Funding Opportunities
Awards
News
Events
Discoveries
Publications
Advisory Committee
Career Opportunities
See Additional SBE Resources
View SBE Staff
SBE Organizations
Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES)
Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities (SMA)
Proposals and Awards
Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide
  Introduction
Proposal Preparation and Submission
bullet Grant Proposal Guide
  bullet Grants.gov Application Guide
Award and Administration
bullet Award and Administration Guide
Award Conditions
Other Types of Proposals
Merit Review
NSF Outreach
Policy Office
Additional SBE Resources
Exploring What Makes Us Human
Rebuilding the Mosaic Report
Bringing People Into Focus: How Social, Behavioral & Economic Research Addresses National Challenges
"Youth Violence: What We Need to Know" Report to NSF
Social, Behavioral and Economic Research in the Federal Context Report
Expedited Review of Social and Behavioral Research Activities Report
SBE Advisory Committee Web Site (for members only)
Other Site Features
Special Reports
Research Overviews
Multimedia Gallery
Classroom Resources
NSF-Wide Investments

Email this pagePrint this page


Press Release 11-112
Moral Responses Change as People Age

Research shows morally laden scenarios get different responses from people of different ages.

Photo of a woman at a sink with her back to a female holding an object behind her back.

Age plays a role in how people respond to moral situations, a new study says.
Credit and Larger Version

June 2, 2011

Moral responses change as people age says a new study from the University of Chicago.

Both preschool children and adults distinguish between damage done either intentionally or accidently when assessing whether a perpetrator has done something wrong, said study author Jean Decety. But, adults are much less likely than children to think someone should be punished for damaging an object, for example, especially if the action was accidental.

The study, which combined brain scanning, eye-tracking and behavioral measures to understand brain responses, was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex in an article titled "The Contribution of Emotion and Cognition to Moral Sensitivity: A Neurodevelopmental Study."

"This is the first study to examine brain and behavior relationships in response to moral and non-moral situations from a neurodevelopmental perspective," wrote Decety in the article.

Decety is the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago and a leading scholar on affective and social neuroscience. The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences funds the research.

"Studying moral judgment across the lifespan in terms of brain and behavior is important," said Lynn Bernstein, a program director for Cognitive Neuroscience at NSF. "It will, for example, contribute to the understanding of disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and psychopathology and to understanding how people at various times in the lifespan respond to others' suffering from physical and psychological pain."

The different responses correlate with the various stages of development, Decety said. As the brain becomes better equipped to make reasoned judgments and integrate an understanding of the mental states of others, moral judgments become more tempered.

Negative emotions alert people to the moral nature of a situation by bringing on discomfort that can precede moral judgment, said Decety. Such an emotional response is stronger in young children, he explained.

Decety and colleagues studied 127 participants, aged 4 to 36, who were shown short video clips while undergoing an fMRI scan. The team also measured changes in the dilation of the people's pupils as they watched the clips.

The participants watched a total of 96 clips that portrayed intentional harm, such as someone being shoved, and accidental harm, such as someone being struck accidentally, such as a golf player swinging a club. The clips also showed intentional damage to objects, such as a person kicking a bicycle tire, and accidental damage, such as a person knocking a teapot off the shelf.

Eye tracking revealed that all of the participants, irrespective of their age, paid more attention to people being harmed and to objects being damaged than they did to the perpetrators. Additionally, an analysis of pupil size showed that "pupil dilation was significantly greater for intentional actions than accidental actions, and this difference was constant across age, and correlated with activity in the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex," Decety said.

The study revealed that the extent of activation in different areas of the brain as participants were exposed to the morally laden videos changed with age. For young children, the amygdala, which is associated the generation of emotional responses to a social situation, was much more activated than it was in adults.

In contrast, adults' responses were highest in the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex areas of the brain that allow people to reflect on the values linked to outcomes and actions.

"Whereas young children had a tendency to consider all perpetrators malicious, irrespective of intention and targets (people and objects), as participants aged, they perceived the perpetrator as clearly less mean when carrying out an accidental action, and even more so when the target was an object," Decety said.

Joining Decety in writing the paper were Kalina Michalska, a postdoctoral scholar, and Katherine Kinzler, an assistant professor, both in the Department of Psychology.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, NSF, (703) 292-8485, bmixon@nsf.gov
William Harms, University of Chicago, (773) 702-1168, w-harms@uchicago.edu

Program Contacts
Lynne Bernstein, NSF, (703) 292-8643, lbernste@nsf.gov

Principal Investigators
Jean Decety, University of Chicago, (773) 834-3711, decety@uchicago.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:
NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

border=0/


Email this pagePrint this page
Back to Top of page