The (dis)honest and (un)fair brain: Investigating the neural underpinnings of moral decisions



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Our lives abound with situations that confront us with a conflict between selfish urges and virtuous alternatives that benefit others. Not everyone solves this conflict in the same manner. While highly virtuous individuals may devote their lives to improve the condition of the oppressed or the less fortunate, more selfish individuals, tend to focus on maximizing their own gains and in some cases even exploit others. These large differences in how individuals weigh their own benefits against moral standards and social norms that may benefit the welfare of others, are pivotally important in understanding moral decision-making that is the fundament of cooperation in organizations and society at large. This dissertation provides three contributions to better understanding the neurocognitive underpinnings of individual differences in moral decision-making. First, it provides reconciliation of a long-standing debate in the literature on the role of cognitive control in (dis)honesty, by showing that the role of cognitive control depends on a person’s moral default: cognitive control helps cheaters to be honest, but also helps honest people cheat. Second, this dissertation contributes by identifying stable neural markers that can be used to predict individual differences in (dis)honesty. Stronger connectivity between brain regions associated with self-referential thinking and reward are predictive of honesty. Lastly, the dissertation provides a behavioral paradigm that can be used to inconspicuously measure voluntary, spontaneous and repeated cheating on a trial-by-trial basis in the MRI scanner or while recording EEG.