Harm avoiders suppress motor resonance to observed immoral actions

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Abstract

Motor resonance (MR) contingent upon action observation is thought to occur largely automatically. Although recent studies suggest that this process is not completely impervious to top-down modulations, much less is known on the possible role of the moral connotation of observed action goal in modulating MR. Here, we explored whether observing actions with different moral connotations modulates MR and whether any modulation depends on the onlookers’ personality. To this aim, we recorded motor potentials evoked by single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation from hand muscles of participants who were watching images of a model performing hand actions with the same postures and low-level goals (i.e. grasping an object) but with different moral connotations (‘stealing a wallet’ vs ‘picking up a notepaper’). Participants’ personality traits were measured using the temperament and character inventory. Results show a selective suppression of corticospinal excitability during observation of immoral actions in individuals with high scores in harm avoidance, a personality trait characterized by excessive worrying and fearfulness. Thus, a combination of dispositional (personality traits) and situational (morality of an action) variables appears to influence MR with the observed actions.

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