Illuminating the conceptual structure of the space of moral violations with searchlight representational similarity analysis

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Characterizing how representations of moral violations are organized, cognitively and neurally, is central to understanding how people conceive and judge them. Past work has identified brain regions that represent morally relevant features and distinguish moral domains, but has not yet advanced a broader account of where and on what basis neural representations of moral violations are organized. With searchlight representational similarity analysis, we investigate where category membership drives similarity in neural patterns during moral judgment of violations from two key moral domains: Harm and Purity. Representations converge across domains in a network of regions resembling the mentalizing network. However, Harm and Purity violation representations respectively converge in different regions: precuneus (PC) and left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG). Examining substructure within moral domains, Harm violations converge in PC regardless of subdomain (physical harms, psychological harms), while Purity subdomains (pathogen-related violations, sex-related violations) converge in distinct sets of regions – mirroring a dissociation observed in principal-component analysis of behavioral data. Further, we find initial evidence for representation of morally relevant features within these two domain-encoding regions. The present analyses offer a case study for understanding how organization within the complex conceptual space of moral violations is reflected in the organization of neural patterns across the cortex.

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