The neural correlates of justified and unjustified killing: An fMRI study

Pascal Molenberghs, Claudette Ogilvie, Winnifred R. Louis, Jean Decety, Jessica Bagnall, Paul G. Bain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (SciVal)


Despite moral prohibitions on hurting other humans, some social contexts allow for harmful actions such as killing of others. One example is warfare, where killing enemy soldiers is seen as morally justified. Yet, the neural underpinnings distinguishing between justified and unjustified killing are largely unknown. To improve understanding of the neural processes involved in justified and unjustified killing, participants had to imagine being the perpetrator whilst watching 'first-person perspective' animated videos where they shot enemy soldiers ('justified violence') and innocent civilians ('unjustified violence'). When participants imagined themselves shooting civilians compared with soldiers, greater activation was found in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). Regression analysis revealed that the more guilt participants felt about shooting civilians, the greater the response in the lateral OFC. Effective connectivity analyses further revealed an increased coupling between lateral OFC and the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) when shooting civilians. The results show that the neural mechanisms typically implicated with harming others, such as the OFC, become less active when the violence against a particular group is seen as justified. This study therefore provides unique insight into how normal individuals can become aggressors in specific situations.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbernsv027
Pages (from-to)1397-1404
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Issue number10
Early online date9 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2015


  • Conflict
  • Intentional harm
  • Morality
  • Orbitofrontal cortex
  • Violence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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