TMB - The Moral Brain

Department of Philosophy and moral sciences
Research focus 



Currently, the following topics are being pursued in the research group:

• Predictive cheater detection

Even in our complex economy trust remains a central prerequisite for social exchange (reciprocal altruism). Since the outcome of non-cooperative deals might be dramatic, partners are reluctant to engage themselves in risky transactions without sufficient guarantee of others’ trustworthiness. From ancient times it has been believed that the human face reveals valuable information about people’s cooperative intentions. Our basic experiments confirm that one single image might be sufficient to predict the cooperativeness of a person above chance-level. People are able to predict the cooperativeness of partners, but only in response to event-related pictures originating from non-cooperative partners. Evolutionary-inspired research understands this predictive cheating detection capacity as the outcome of adaptive forces. Human survival might depend on the ability to scrutinize faces in order to pass over harmful deals. In further research we extended these finding to a dot probe design in order to elucidate the automatic and pre-attentive nature of this process. Recently we started ERPstudies (event-related potentials) and fMRI-research to discover the neural correlates of predictive cheater detection.

• Empathy: personal distress versus empathic concern Why do people help each other?

One classic answer to explain helping behavior entails the human capacity to experience others’ feelings. People possess – what has been called – ‘empathy’. Obviously, empathy not always provokes a helping reflex. Children in a premature stage of moral development might experience distressing empathic feelings, though they lack the helping impulse in general. Unable to cope with unpleasant emotions they feel paralyzed or run away from the distressing scene. Older children disapprove of this selfish reaction and apprehend to convert the egoistic personal distress into an altruistic empathic concern. In this line of research we attempt to clarify the neurological mechanisms which distinguish these fundamental empathic reactions. In a series of psychological experiments we seek to replicate these responses. With the help of scanners we hope to unravel which brain regions generate the mature empathic concern response. These findings can be useful in the treatment of juvenile delinquents who need more adequate empathy training.

• Distress sensitivity among psychopaths

In contemporary literature it has been consistently suggested that subjects with psychopathic personality characteristics show a reduced sensitivity to distress cues (fear, sadness). This absence of emotional responsiveness might help to explain the indifference of psychopaths to the suffering of Self Evaluation Report Philosophy 329 others. According to the English psychologist James Blair, psychopathic individuals lack a Violence Inhibition Mechanism (VIM), which finds its evolutionary roots in the control of conspecific aggression. In the Blair studies the participants are required to observe distress cues without any contextual information. No information is given about the causes of the fear or sadness, and no particular motivational states are expected to facilitate the registering of the distress cues. In our view these experimental conditions are somewhat problematic. Because violence inhibition prominently occurs in contexts of conflict, the question is open whether psychopaths remain insensitive to distress cues if the suffering of others is justified? If psychopaths are asked to punish obvious transgressors or to witness the punishment of an evildoer, they will probably show more interest in the recognition of distress cues. In these motivational contexts distress cues offer information about the effectiveness of punishments and this information is crucial with respect to the satisfaction of an inflicted punishment. The aim of this line of research is to explore whether the alleged decrease of responsiveness to distress cues in psychopathic individuals, documented in the publications of Blair and co-workers, still holds in these punishment contexts. This research is in close collaboration with Stefaan Decoene and Ellen Donné (University of Leuven).

• Disgust and morality

This line of research focuses on de relation between disgust and morality in the following three ways. 1. What emotional, physiological and moral reactions are elicited by incest? Principal investigators: Delphine De Smet; supervisor: Jan Verplaetse 2. What emotional, physiological and moral reactions are elicited by blood? Principal investigators: Delphine De Smet, Lien Van speybroeck; supervisor: Jan Verplaetse 3. Are there age-differences in disgust and morality?


The Moral Brain (TMB) is the initiative that Jan Verplaetse started in 2004 together with Johan Braeckman (Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Ghent University). TMB is an interdisciplinary research community that unites Belgian and Dutch researchers who study – amongst other topics - moral and immoral behavior, moral emotions and the development of ethical judgments from a neuroscientific and evolutionary perspective. Besides doing research inspired by contemporary insights gained from the neurosciences, evolutionary psychology, behavioral economy, anthropology and other disciplines, TMB highlighs current developments and innovative insights in international research. At its apex TMB included more than twenty researchers or affiliated researchers from other faculties and universities, investigated – empirically and theoretically - a rich variety of different topics such as cheating detection, empathy, critical thinking, sibling incest, free will, religion, art, irrational beliefs, etc., and frequently organized Moral Brain Meetings from 2005 until 2013. International conferences were visited, contacts with international leading experts were maintained and TMB was integrated in a more broader FWO-sponsored network HEBEN (Human Evolution and Behavior Network). The following overview summarizes topics and members. Only members with an asterisk (*) were members of the Ghent Faculty of Law:


A. Evolutionary theory and philosophy of biology (Johan Braeckman, Koen Tanghe, Alexis Detiège)

B. Critical thinking (Johan Braeckman, Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke)

C. Prehistorical art and aesthetic judgement (Johan Desmedt, Helen Decruz, Eveline Seghers)

D. Morality

D.1. cheating detection and empathy (Jan Verplaetse*, Sven Vanneste, Jelle De Schrijver, Katinka Quintelier, Rutger Goedkoop, Dirk De Ridder)

D.2. Disgust and sibling incest (Jan Verplaetse*, Delphine De Smet*, Lien Van Speybroeck)

D.3. Free will, brain and criminal law (Jan Verplaetse*, Farah Focquaert)

E. Empirical philosophy (Katinka Quintelier, Lieuwe Zijlstra)  

The Moral Brain is een interdisciplinaire groep van Belgische en Nederlandse onderzoekers. Zij bestuderen moreel en immoreel gedrag, morele emoties en de ontwikkeling van morele oordelen vanuit een neurowetenschappelijk, evolutionair en antropologisch perspectief. Naast het uitvoeren van wetenschappelijk onderzoek belicht The Moral Brain ook recente ontwikkelingen en vernieuwende inzichten in internationaal onderzoek, onder meer in cursussen, bijeenkomsten, workshops en lezingen.




Jan Verplaetse

Delphine De Smet

Selected publications. For a complete list of publications, please refer to the profile pages of individual members.