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Impaired Decoding of Fear and Disgust Predicts Utilitarian Moral Judgment in Alcohol-Dependent Individuals

Authors

  • Martina Carmona-Perera,

    1. Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment, School of Psychology, University of Granada, Granada, Spain
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  • Luke Clark,

    1. Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
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  • Liane Young,

    1. Department of Psychology, Boston College, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Miguel Pérez-García,

    1. Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment, School of Psychology, University of Granada, Granada, Spain
    2. Centro de Investigación Mente, Cerebro y Comportamiento (CIMCYC), University of Granada, Granada, Spain
    3. Centro de Investigaciones Biomédica en Red de Salud Mental (CIBERSAM), University of Granada, Granada, Spain
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  • Antonio Verdejo-García

    1. Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment, School of Psychology, University of Granada, Granada, Spain
    2. Institute of Neuroscience F. Oloriz, University of Granada, Granada, Spain
    3. School of Psychology and Psychiatry, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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Reprint requests: Martina Carmona-Perera, MD, Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment, School of Psychology, University of Granada, 18071 Granada, Spain; Tel.: +34 656 883427; +34 958 242848; Fax: +34 958 243749; E-mail: martinacarmona@gmail.com

Abstract

Background

Recent studies of moral reasoning in patients with alcohol use disorders have indicated a “utilitarian” bias, whereby patients are more likely to endorse emotionally aversive actions in favor of aggregate welfare (e.g., throwing a dying person into the sea to keep a lifeboat of survivors afloat). Here, we investigate the underlying psychological and neuropsychological processes.

Methods

Alcohol-dependent individuals (n = 31) and healthy comparison participants (n = 34) completed a validated moral judgment task, as well as measures of impulsivity, mood symptoms (anxiety and depression), and emotional face recognition.

Results

Alcohol-dependent individuals were more likely to endorse utilitarian choices in personal moral dilemmas compared with controls and rated these choices as less difficult to make. Hierarchical regression models showed that poorer decoding of fear and disgust significantly predicted utilitarian biases in personal moral dilemmas, over and above alcohol consumption. Impulsivity and mood symptoms did not predict moral decisions.

Conclusions

These findings suggest that impaired fear and disgust decoding contributes to utilitarian moral decision-making in alcohol-dependent individuals.

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