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Task-dependent evaluative processing of moral and emotional content during comprehension: an ERP study

Kunkel, Angelika; Filik, Ruth; Mackenzie, Ian Grant; Leuthold, Hartmut


Angelika Kunkel

Associate Professor

Ian Grant Mackenzie

Hartmut Leuthold


Recently, we showed that when participants passively read about moral transgressions (e.g., adultery) they implicitly engage in the evaluative (good–bad) categorization of incoming information, as indicated by a larger event-related brain potential (ERP) positivity to immoral than moral scenarios (Leuthold, Kunkel, Mackenzie, & Filik, 2015). Behavioral and neuroimaging studies indicated that explicit moral tasks prioritize the semantic-cognitive analysis of incoming information but that implicit tasks, as used in Leuthold et al. (2015), favor their affective processing. Therefore, it is unclear whether an affective categorization process is also involved when participants perform explicit moral judgments. Thus, in two experiments, we used similarly constructed morality and emotion materials for which their moral and emotional content had to be inferred from the context. Target sentences from negative vs. neutral emotional scenarios and from moral vs. immoral scenarios were presented using rapid serial visual presentation. In Experiment 1, participants made moral judgments for moral materials and emotional judgments for emotion materials. Negative compared to neutral emotional scenarios elicited a larger posterior ERP positivity (LPP) about 200 ms after critical word onset, whereas immoral compared to moral scenarios elicited a larger anterior negativity (500-700 ms). In Experiment 2, where the same emotional judgment to both types of materials was required, a larger LPP was triggered for both types of materials. These results accord with the view that morality scenarios trigger a semantic-cognitive analysis when participants explicitly judge the moral content of incoming linguistic information but an affective evaluation when judging their emotional content.


Kunkel, A., Filik, R., Mackenzie, I. G., & Leuthold, H. (2018). Task-dependent evaluative processing of moral and emotional content during comprehension: an ERP study. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 18(2), 389-409.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Feb 18, 2018
Online Publication Date Mar 6, 2018
Publication Date Apr 30, 2018
Deposit Date Mar 5, 2018
Publicly Available Date Mar 7, 2019
Journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience
Print ISSN 1530-7026
Electronic ISSN 1531-135X
Publisher Springer Verlag
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 18
Issue 2
Pages 389-409
Keywords moral judgment, emotion judgment, affective evaluation, LPP, anterior negativity
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information This is a post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version of an article published in Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience. The final authenticated version is available online at:


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