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Author Notes:

Author for correspondence (gberns@emory.edu)


Research Funding:

Supported by grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) through the Office of Naval Research (ONR N000140910912) and NSF (0827313).


  • Science & Technology
  • Life Sciences & Biomedicine
  • Biology
  • Life Sciences & Biomedicine - Other Topics
  • functional magnetic resonance imaging
  • sacred values
  • utility
  • deontologic
  • rules
  • MIND

The price of your soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values


Journal Title:

Philosophical Transactions B: Biological Sciences


Volume 367, Number 1589


, Pages 754-762

Type of Work:

Article | Final Publisher PDF


Sacred values, such as those associated with religious or ethnic identity, underlie many important individual and group decisions in life, and individuals typically resist attempts to trade off their sacred values in exchange for material benefits. Deontological theory suggests that sacred values are processed based on rights and wrongs irrespective of outcomes, while utilitarian theory suggests that they are processed based on costs and benefits of potential outcomes, but which mode of processing an individual naturally uses is unknown. The study of decisions over sacred values is difficult because outcomes cannot typically be realized in a laboratory, and hence little is known about the neural representation and processing of sacred values. We used an experimental paradigm that used integrity as a proxy for sacredness and which paid real money to induce individuals to sell their personal values. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we found that values that people refused to sell (sacred values) were associated with increased activity in the left temporoparietal junction and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, regions previously associated with semantic rule retrieval. This suggests that sacred values affect behaviour through the retrieval and processing of deontic rules and not through a utilitarian evaluation of costs and benefits.

Copyright information:

© 2012 The Royal Society.

This is an Open Access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
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