Research Article: Brain Switches Utilitarian Behavior: Does Gender Make the Difference?

Date Published: January 25, 2010

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Manuela Fumagalli, Maurizio Vergari, Patrizio Pasqualetti, Sara Marceglia, Francesca Mameli, Roberta Ferrucci, Simona Mrakic-Sposta, Stefano Zago, Giuseppe Sartori, Gabriella Pravettoni, Sergio Barbieri, Stefano Cappa, Alberto Priori, Alessandro Antonietti.

Abstract: Decision often implies a utilitarian choice based on personal gain, even at the expense of damaging others. Despite the social implications of utilitarian behavior, its neurophysiological bases remain largely unknown. To assess how the human brain controls utilitarian behavior, we delivered transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) over the ventral prefrontal cortex (VPC) and over the occipital cortex (OC) in 78 healthy subjects. Utilitarian judgment was assessed with the moral judgment task before and after tDCS. At baseline, females provided fewer utilitarian answers than males for personal moral dilemmas (p = .007). In males, VPC-tDCS failed to induce changes and in both genders OC-tDCS left utilitarian judgments unchanged. In females, cathodal VPC-tDCS tended to decrease whereas anodal VPC-tDCS significantly increased utilitarian responses (p = .005). In males and females, reaction times for utilitarian responses significantly decreased after cathodal (p<.001) but not after anodal (p = .735) VPC-tDCS. We conclude that ventral prefrontal tDCS interferes with utilitarian decisions, influencing the evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of each option in both sexes, but does so more strongly in females. Whereas cathodal tDCS alters the time for utilitarian reasoning in both sexes, anodal stimulation interferes more incisively in women, modifying utilitarian reasoning and the possible consequent actions. The gender-related tDCS-induced changes suggest that the VPC differentially controls utilitarian reasoning in females and in males. The gender-specific functional organization of the brain areas involved in utilitarian behavior could be a correlate of the moral and social behavioral differences between the two sexes.

Partial Text: “Practical issues are issues over which people are prepared to fight and kill one another; and it may be that unless some way is found of talking about them rationally and with hope of agreement, violence will finally engulf the world” [1]. Although philosophers recognized the importance of moral thinking for mankind, the biological basis of utilitarian behavior, the guiding psychological processes and underlying neurophysiological mechanisms remain unclear.

The main finding is that neurostimulation influencing cortical excitability in the VPC elicits changes in utilitarian judgments. When we applied tDCS to the VPC but not when we applied it to the OC, we also identified distinct gender-related differences in utilitarian responses to moral as well as non-moral dilemmas. These differences might help to explain the known gender-related differences in human utilitarian reasoning. We also found a significant reduction in RTs for utilitarian responses after cathodal VPC-tDCS, regardless of type of dilemmas and of sex. These findings acquire strength because they come from a study investigating utilitarian judgments by tDCS in a large study sample, 78 subjects, balanced for sex and age and controlled for religious beliefs and type of education.



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