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Each item was classified based on whether the participant submitted a price in the auction bid or opted out of the auction optout.

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Submitting a price meant that the participant was willing to exchange this item for money. Opting out meant that the value was non-negotiable or that the amount we offered for the value was not high enough. This provided us with a classification for sacred and non-sacred values. After all of the ask values were obtained, the participant rolled a pair of sided dice for each of the items for which an ask price was put. If the dice roll was greater than their ask price, they received the value of the dice roll for that item. Their final payment was the average of all items sold and not sold. At the end of the auction phase, the participant received a printout of their chosen statements active phase , which they did not sell in the auction, and the new statements, which were the complements of the statements sold in the auction.

The printout had to be signed. Prior to the auction, participants knew they would have to sign the final document of their personal values. In this manner, the signing of the final document provided an additional incentive to reveal true value. To determine the temporal stability of their personal values, participants repeated the active phase choices through an online survey 6—14 months following their fMRI scan. At that point, they were also asked to indicate how they arrived at their decision: rights and wrongs, costs and benefits or neither.

The latter responses were subsequently used to create a functional localizer for deontic and utilitarian processing in the brain. The purpose was to determine the stability of each person's values and whether their decision for each pair in the active phase was primarily deontic or utilitarian. This was conducted through surveymonkey. Twenty-eight of 32 The survey repeated the active phase, prompting for a choice between complementary items. Following each choice, the participant was asked to indicate how they arrived at their decision.

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The following three choices were offered: i right and wrong; ii costs and benefits; and iii neither. Functional data consisted of 33 axial slices that were sampled with a thickness of 3.

Each participant completed four runs with 62 trials each, whose length depended on participants' decision time two runs of passive, one run each of active and hypothetical. The auction was done outside of the scanner.

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Statistical thresholds were determined based on the estimated smoothness of the second-level contrasts. Using the AlphaSim routine in analysis of functional neuroimages AFNI , we estimated the combination of height and extent thresholds that yielded a whole-brain false discovery rate FDR less than 0. A 40 per cent grey matter mask was applied to all contrasts before using these thresholds. First, a functional localizer for deontic versus utilitarian processing was obtained from the active phase.

Second, the regions of interest ROIs obtained from the functional localizer were then used to mask the contrasts in the passive phase.

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For the first-level model of the passive phase, each statement was categorized based on the participant's subsequent choice in the active phase chosen versus not chosen and whether they submitted an ask value during the auction bid versus optout. Clearly, items that were not chosen could not be sold, but because the auction was to switch from the chosen to the not chosen item, they were implicitly part of the choice process. Within each ROI, the average activation across subjects was tested for significance with a t -test. To evaluate the possibility of alternative interpretations of the activation patterns, four additional models were tested.

Given that many sacred values are also represented in legal doctrine, we sought to control for the possibility that participants were simply processing statements as lawful or not. To do this, we removed legality statements into their own category and tested the original model on non-legality statements. If one item of a complimentary pair was illegal either by US or international law, then it was coded as a legality item. Using the ROIs from the original model, we tested for the significance of the main effect of optout—bid for only the non-legality items in a second-level model.

To control for the length of the statement, each condition was modulated by the number of words in the statement, which served as a nuisance regressor. Semantic richness SR refers to the amount of semantic information contained in, or associated with, a concept in semantic memory [ 33 ]. To test the possibility that SR may be partially confounded with our measures of sacredness e. There was an approximately ordinal and concave relationship between the fraction of individuals submitting bids to change an answer for a particular item and the fraction of individuals who stated they would hypothetically accept money to change their behaviour figure 1.

Follow-up 6—14 months after the initial experiment showed a high degree of stability of sacred values In addition, In comparison, only Relationship of auction behaviour to hypothetical solicitation of money. The fraction of individuals submitting auction bids to change their answer for a given pair is plotted against the fraction of individuals who indicated that hypothetically they would accept money to change the corresponding behaviour.


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Items in the lower left sacred had a low percentage of individuals willing to accept either hypothetical or real money. These items pertained to the sanctity of human life, especially children. Items in the upper right non-sacred had a high percentage of individuals willing to accept both hypothetical and real money to change and represented utilitarian preferences e. Coke versus Pepsi and dog versus cat. Despite this correlation, all of the points lie above the diagonal, indicating a hypothetical bias participants sold more often than they said they would hypothetically.

Light grey bars, optout; dark grey bars, bid. To determine whether a stimulus naturally prompted deontological or utilitarian processing, we examined the brain activity during the passive phase. Being the first and unconstrained phase of the experiment, and the only one in which items were presented individually, yielded a window into the natural processing of these values.

Before analysing this phase, a functional localizer for deontic versus utilitarian processing was obtained from the active phase. Only the left TPJ was identified as a deontic region, but the orbitofrontal cortex OFC , and left and right inferior parietal lobules were identified as utilitarian figure 2.

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Second, the regions obtained from the functional localizer were then used to mask the contrasts in the passive phase. The main effect of optout—bid was input into a second-level model and then masked with the deontic and utilitarian maps from the functional localizers. To determine if there were additional regions associated with processing sacred values not identified by the functional localizer, we also performed a whole-brain analysis of the passive phase contrast optout-bid, which additionally included the left VLPFC, dorsomedial PFC and right amygdala figure 3.


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  7. Regions were classified as deontic when the participant indicated that their choice was based on rights and wrongs, and utilitarian when their choice was based on costs and benefits. These regions were then applied to the passive phase activation in which each statement had been presented individually in the absence of choice.

    Each statement was categorized based on whether the participant sold a particular personal value during an auction held after the brain imaging session bid or opted out of the auction for that value optout. At the time of imaging, participants did not know that they were going to have the opportunity to sell these values for real money. Relative to the other three conditions, only the not chosen optout items resulted in more amygdala activation.

    The latter statements represent the most repugnant items to the individual those not chosen and not auctioned and would be expected to provoke the most arousal, which is consistent with the idea that when sacred values are violated they induce outrage [ 1 — 3 ]. These results provide strong evidence that when individuals naturally process statements about sacred values, they use neural systems associated with evaluating rights and wrongs TPJ and semantic rule retrieval VLPFC but not systems associated with utility.

    The involvement of the TPJ is consistent with the conjecture that moral sentiments exist as context-independent knowledge in temporal cortex [ 14 , 37 ].

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    Both the left and right TPJ have been associated with belief attribution during moral judgements of third parties [ 17 ]. Our results show that it is also involved in the evaluation of personal sacred values without decision constraints. Thus, one explanation for the reduction in morally prohibited judgements when the TPJ is disrupted by transcranial magnetic stimulation [ 25 ] is because disruption impairs access to personal deontic knowledge.

    The involvement of the left VLPFC in personal sacred values is also consistent with the conjecture that deontic rules are retrieved and processed as semantic knowledge as opposed to utility calculations.


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    Although the VLPFC has been historically implicated in language function, more recent neuroimaging work has demonstrated that the particular area we identified as processing sacred values is associated with semantic rule retrieval and processing [ 27 — 29 ]. In a study of road signs, the anterior division of the left VLPFC was found to be most closely associated with rule retrieval [ 28 ].

    We observed the same division more active when participants processed sacred values. Similar results were also found in a language-based study of rules, with this region being implicated in top-down retrieval of semantic knowledge [ 27 ].