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Group Moral Decisions: Conceptual, computational and neural investigation

PhD Project of Anita Keshmirian

Animals seek “safety in numbers” by forming groups to avoid being eaten by predators. Do we humans also hide in groups to avoid harm and feel safer by preventing first-party and third-party punishment? Do we perceive a person in a group less guilty for an immoral act? How does our brain perceive responsibility in collective moral actions? My research is mainly about collective moral decisions, either when we are part of them or when we are just observing them. In my research, I try to answer some of the questions above.

Psychological and brain imaging studies have shown that third-party punishment is composed of two distinct neuro-cognitive components: intention (did the agent mean to harm?) and outcome (what was the consequence of the harm?). For now, I am doing experiments to know if the third party punishment would be reduced in collective harm in comparison to the individual harm. My current research question is if less punishment would be given to collective (vs individual) that perpetrated harm and that this punishment would be modulated by intention and outcome. I tested this hypothesis previously with 1100 participants: Participants punished people in group less for intentional and accidental murders. Currently, I am doing another study to replicate this effect, to extend it and to figure out what other variables are modulating it. For the next steps, I will be using fMRI and computational models to see the neural and computational mechanisms of the “spread of punishment” in different conditions.