Perceiving utilitarian gradients: Heart rate variability and self-regulatory effort in the moral dilemma task

Social Neuroscience 16 (4):391–405 (2021)
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It is not yet clear which response behavior requires self-regulatory effort in the moral dilemma task. Previous research has proposed that utilitarian responses require cognitive control, but subsequent studies have found inconsistencies with the empirical predictions of that hypothesis. In this paper we treat participants’ sensitivity to utilitarian gradients as a measure of performance. We confronted participants (N = 82) with a set of five dilemmas evoking a gradient of mean utilitarian responses in a 4-point scale and collected data on heart rate variability and on utilitarian responses. We found positive correlations between tonic and phasic HRV and sensitivity to the utilitarian gradient in the high tonic group, but not in the low tonic group. Moreover, the low tonic group misplaced a scenario with a selfish incentive at the high end of the gradient. Results suggest that performance is represented by sensitivity correlated with HRV and accompanied with a reasonable placement of individual scenarios within the gradient.

Author Profiles

Juan Pablo Bermúdez
Universidad Externado De Colombia
Alejandro Rosas
Universidad Nacional de Colombia


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