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To shoot or not to shoot

The lateral orbitofrontal cortex (lOFC) often shows increased activation in moral situations involving intentional harm and unjustified violence. Previous brain imaging studies have illustrated that cultural stereotypes can be automatically activated even when a perceiver does not personally endorse them. Neural correlates implicated in social behaviour are not only influenced by social context but also by group membership, and thus respond differently to ingroup and outgroup members. This functional MRI study investigated if group membership influences lOFC activity and levels of guilt felt in situations of unjustified and justified violence.

Dr Pascal Molenberghs and Hons student Ayushi Gupta (Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences, School of Psychological Sciences) conducted a study to investigate:

(1) how lOFC activity is associated with actively making the decision to harm others (in situations of both unjustified and justified violence) and the feelings of potential guilt associated with this process, and

(2) how these decisions and underlying neural processes in the lOFC are influenced by racial group membership of the target.

The protocol design was based on a study performed in the USA, where participants were required to imagine that they were a police officer and instructed to make quick shoot/don't shoot decisions in response to images of armed and unarmed targets by different racial groups (Caucasian and African-American). As a result, situations of justified violence (shooting an armed target) and unjustified violence (shooting an unarmed target) were generated. Targets of Non-Muslim and Muslim appearance were incorporated (rather than Caucasian and African-American) to better represent the influence of group-membership in an Australian context. Images were presented to participants during functional MRI scans on the Siemens 3 Telsa MRI scanner at Monash Biomedical Imaging to assess the Blood Oxygen Level Dependent (BOLD) response as a measure of brain activity.

The findings show that lOFC activation is associated with moral situations that include not only intentionally harming others, but also when the self is harmed. These findings highlight the important roles of context and agency and their relationship with lOFC activity in moral dilemmas. The behavioural results also showed that participants felt less guilt when harming the outgroup compared to ingroup in situations of justified violence, indicating the potential presence of a more subtle form of prejudice - aversive racism (racists who believe they are non-prejudiced yet subconsciously harbour negative feelings towards another race). The results provide further insight into understanding societal problems like prejudice and racism. Consequently, by increasing people's awareness of such biases and their influence on moral decision making, they may help reduce racial bias and prejudice in society.