In sentencing guilty defendants, jurors and judges weigh 'mitigating circumstances', which create sympathy for a defendant. Here we use functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure neural activity in ordinary citizens who are potential jurors, as they decide on mitigation of punishment for murder. We found that sympathy activated regions associated with mentalising and moral conflict (dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, precuneus and temporo-parietal junction). Sentencing also activated precuneus and anterior cingulate cortex, suggesting that mitigation is based on negative affective responses to murder, sympathy for mitigating circumstances and cognitive control to choose numerical punishments. Individual differences on the inclination to mitigate, the sentence reduction per unit of judged sympathy, correlated with activity in the right middle insula, an area known to represent interoception of visceral states. These results could help the legal system understand how potential jurors actually decide, and contribute to growing knowledge about whether emotion and cognition are integrated sensibly in difficult judgments.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Physics and Astronomy(all)