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In moral dilemma tasks, high levels of psychopathic traits often predict increased utilitarian responding—specifically, endorsing sacrificing one person to save many. Research suggests that increased arousal (i.e., somatic marker production) underlies lower rates of utilitarian responding during moral dilemmas. Though deficient somatic marker production is characteristic of psychopathy, how this deficit affects the psychopathy–utilitarian connection remains unknown. We assessed psychopathic traits in undergraduates, as well as behavioral performance and skin conductance level reactivity (SCL-R; a measure of somatic marker production) during a moral dilemma task. High psychopathic traits and low SCL-R were associated with increased utilitarian decisions in dilemmas involving direct personal harm. Psychopathic traits were unrelated to SCL-R, nor did SCL-R mediate the relationship between psychopathy and utilitarianism. The present study did not find evidence that somatic marker production explains the connection between utilitarianism and psychopathy in a college population. Further research is necessary to identify the neural mechanisms relating psychopathy and moral decision-making in nonclinical samples.


This work was originally published in Brain Sciences, available at doi:10.3390/brainsci10050303.

This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (

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