The Influence of Arousal on Moral Decision-making for Individuals with and without Mild Head Injury
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Recent research has shown that University students with a history of self-reported mild head injury (MHI) are more willing to endorse moral transgressions associated with personal, relative to impersonal, dilemmas (Chiappetta & Good, 2008). However, the terms 'personal' and 'impersonal' in these dilemmas have functionally confounded the 'intentionality' of the transgression with the 'personal impact' or 'outcome' of the transgression. In this study we used a modified version of these moral dilemmas to investigate decision-making and sympathetic nervous system responsivity. Forty-eight University students (24 with MHI, 24 with no-MHI) read 24 scenarios depicting moral dilemmas varying as a function of 'intentionality' of the act (deliberate or unintentional) and its 'outcome' (physical harm, no physical harm, non-moral) and were required to rate their willingness to engage in the act. Physiological indices of arousal (e.g., heart rate - HR) were recorded throughout. Additionally, participants completed several neurocognitive tests. Results indicated significantly lowered HR activity at baseline, prior to, and during (but not after) making a decision for each type of dilemma for participants with MHI compared to their non-injured cohort. Further, they were more likely than their cohort to authorize personal injuries that were deliberately induced. MHI history was also associated with better performance on tasks of cognitive flexibility and attention; while students' complaints of postconcussive symptoms and their social problem solving abilities did not differ as a function of MHI history. The results provide subtle support for the hypothesis that both emotional and cognitive information guide moral decision making in ambiguous and emotionally distressing situations. Persons with even a MHI have diminished physiological arousal that may reflect disruption to the neural pathways of the VMPFC/OFC similar to those with more severe injuries.