Cognitive, Socioemotional, and Neural Mechanisms Associated with Age-Related Differences in First and Third Person Moral Judgments
The present research used a combination of resting-state functional connectivity and behavioral testing within and beyond the laboratory to examine how age is associated with potential cognitive and socioemotional motivational mechanisms in relation to first-person moral decision-making and third person moral judgments. Part I investigated whether the gray matter structure and resting-state functional connectivity of the Default Mode Network were similarly related to working memory capacity and sacrificial moral decision-making in younger and older adults. Results indicated that better working memory performance was positively associated with Default Mode Network segregation in both groups, as marked by increased within-network resting-state functional connectivity, and decreased between-network connectivity. Critically, reduced bias to endorse the utilitarian option during sacrificial dilemmas involving incidental harm was associated with increased segregation of the Default Mode Network in younger adults. Similar behavioral performance in older adults, however, was associated with reduced segregation of the Default Mode Network via increased coupling with Salience Network regions. These findings suggest that Default Mode Network functional integrity may be differentially associated with age-related changes in working memory capacity and sacrificial moral decision-making. Part II investigated whether age differences in utilitarian moral decision-making extend beyond the laboratory in non-sacrificial settings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Results indicated that older age and negative affect were associated with the purchase of extra amounts of hard to find good and medical supplies. Negative memory was additionally associated with the purchase of hard to find goods. Advancing age was also associated with reported distribution of these goods to family members, suggesting that these behaviors may have actually resulted in more utilitarian outcomes than when younger adults reported purchasing these goods. These findings suggest that advancing age may be associated with the engagement in utilitarian moral decision-making in real-world settings more than sacrificial moral decision-making literature might suggest. These results also highlight the link between emotional memory and moral decision-making in real-world settings. Part III sought to determine whether younger adults display memory biases for mixed-valence moral scenarios about others’ actions in a similar manner to the negativity biases demonstrated in the emotional memory literature. It also sought to determine whether episodic memory content could be used to predict subsequent judgments about agents’ actions. Indeed participants demonstrated an immoral memory bias for motivational content that they learned about agents’ actions. Additionally, memory for motivational content appeared to predict subsequent judgments of agents’ actions. These findings suggest that the information recalled from episodic memory stores may be important for informing subsequent moral judgments about agents’ actions. These immoral memory biases observed in younger adults highlight important avenues for future research to consider when examining age-related motivational shifts in emotional memory and moral judgment. The findings of the present work highlight the complex interplay of cognitive and socioemotional motivational mechanisms associated with age-related effects on first-person moral decision-making and third-person moral judgments. In the context of the broader literature, the findings indirectly point to the involvement of age-related motivational mechanisms in all three studies. These findings have important implications for moral development in the second half of life.