Distinct neuronal patterns of positive and negative moral processing in psychopathy

Samantha J. Fede, Jana Schaich Borg, Prashanth K. Nyalakanti, Carla L. Harenski, Lora M. Cope, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Mike Koenigs, Vince D. Calhoun, Kent A. Kiehl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Psychopathy is a disorder characterized by severe and frequent moral violations in multiple domains of life. Numerous studies have shown psychopathy-related limbic brain abnormalities during moral processing; however, these studies only examined negatively valenced moral stimuli. Here, we aimed to replicate prior psychopathy research on negative moral judgments and to extend this work by examining psychopathy-related abnormalities in the processing of controversial moral stimuli and positive moral processing. Incarcerated adult males (N = 245) completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging protocol on a mobile imaging system stationed at the prison. Psychopathy was assessed using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist–Revised (PCL-R). Participants were then shown words describing three types of moral stimuli: wrong (e.g., stealing), not wrong (e.g., charity), and controversial (e.g., euthanasia). Participants rated each stimulus as either wrong or not wrong. PCL-R total scores were correlated with not wrong behavioral responses to wrong moral stimuli, and were inversely related to hemodynamic activity in the anterior cingulate cortex in the contrast of wrong > not wrong. In the controversial > noncontroversial comparison, psychopathy was inversely associated with activity in the temporal parietal junction and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These results indicate that psychopathy-related abnormalities are observed during the processing of complex, negative, and positive moral stimuli.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1074-1085
Number of pages12
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016


  • Decision making
  • Incarceration
  • Moral
  • Prosocial
  • Psychopathy
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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