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An aversion to harming others is a core component of human morality and is disturbed in antisocial behavior. Deficient harm aversion may underlie instrumental and reactive aggression, which both feature in psychopathy. Past work has highlighted monoaminergic influences on aggression, but a mechanistic account of how monoamines regulate antisocial motives remains elusive. We previously observed that most people show a greater aversion to inflicting pain on others than themselves. Here, we investigated whether this hyperaltruistic disposition is susceptible to monoaminergic control. We observed dissociable effects of the serotonin reuptake inhibitor citalopram and the dopamine precursor levodopa on decisions to inflict pain on oneself and others for financial gain. Computational models of choice behavior showed that citalopram increased harm aversion for both self and others, while levodopa reduced hyperaltruism. The effects of citalopram were stronger than those of levodopa. Crucially, neither drug influenced the physical perception of pain or other components of choice such as motor impulsivity or loss aversion, suggesting a direct and specific influence of serotonin and dopamine on the valuation of harm. We also found evidence for dose dependency of these effects. Finally, the drugs had dissociable effects on response times, with citalopram enhancing behavioral inhibition and levodopa reducing slowing related to being responsible for another's fate. These distinct roles of serotonin and dopamine in modulating moral behavior have implications for potential treatments of social dysfunction that is a common feature as well as a risk factor for many psychiatric disorders.

Original publication

DOI

10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.021

Type

Journal article

Journal

Curr Biol

Publication Date

20/07/2015

Volume

25

Pages

1852 - 1859

Keywords

Adolescent, Adult, Aggression, Altruism, Citalopram, Decision Making, Dopamine, Dopamine Agents, Double-Blind Method, Female, Humans, Levodopa, Male, Morals, Serotonin, Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors, Young Adult