On the wrong side of the trolley track: Neural correlates of relative social valuation

Mina Cikara, Rachel A. Farnsworth, Lasana T. Harris, Susan T. Fiske

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

126 Scopus citations


Using moral dilemmas, we (i) investigate whether stereotypes motivate people to value ingroup lives over outgroup lives and (ii) examine the neurobiological correlates of relative social valuation using fMRI. Saving ingroup members, who seem warm and competent (e.g. Americans), was most morally acceptable in the context of a dilemma where one person was killed to save five people. Extreme outgroup members, who seem neither warm nor competent (e.g. homeless), were the worst off; it was most morally acceptable to sacrifice them and least acceptable to save them. Sacrificing these low-warmth, low-competence targets to save ingroup targets, specifically, activated a neural network associated with resolving complex tradeoffs: medial PFC (BA 9, extending caudally to include ACC), left lateral OFC (BA 47) and left dorsolateral PFC (BA 10). These brain regions were recruited for dilemmas that participants ultimately rated as relatively more acceptable. We propose that participants, though ambivalent, overrode general aversion to these tradeoffs when the cost of sacrificing a low-warmth, low-competence target was pitted against the benefit of saving ingroup targets. Moral decisions are not made in a vacuum; intergroup biases and stereotypes weigh heavily on neural systems implicated in moral decision making.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbernsq011
Pages (from-to)404-413
Number of pages10
JournalSocial cognitive and affective neuroscience
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Intergroup bias
  • Moral dilemmas
  • Social valuation
  • fMRI


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