Antidepressants May Affect Moral Judgment, Study Says

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Marji_040715In a recent study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers at the University College London (UCL) and Oxford University tested to what extent individuals were actively willing to inflict pain on themselves, and others, in exchange for cash.

In previous studies, the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine have been linked to aggressive behavior. Since some psychiatric drugs enhance levels of these neurotransmitters, the study’s researchers compared the moral decisions people made while on a drug that enhances serotonin levels (citalopram) compared to a drug that enhances dopamine levels (levodopa).

Researchers recruited 175 healthy people; 89 of them were given citalopram or a placebo, and 86 of them were given levodopa or a placebo.

The participants were also randomly given roles as “deciders” or “receivers.” Deciders and receivers were paired together anonymously. Each decider and each receiver was allocated an equal number of “mildly-painful” shocks by researchers—but the deciders had the clout to pay money from their allocated funds to prevent themselves, as well as the receivers, from being shocked.

During the 170 trials that were conducted, deciders were offered a variety of electric shocks that cost various amounts of money. Since the deciders and receivers were anonymously paired, researchers determined that there was no fear of retribution if the deciders permitted shocks on the receivers.

Researchers discovered that participants who took levodopa were more likely to shock others. In fact, the levodopa deciders permitted 10 more shocks to receivers compared to the control group. Participants who received placebos were only willing to pay 55 cents per shock to prevent themselves from being shocked and an average of 69 cents to prevent others from being shocked.

The group who took citalopram were more generous—they were willing to pay an average of 94 cents per shock to prevent themselves from being harmed and $1.14 per shock to prevent pain to others. Furthermore, over the course of the study, the citalopram deciders gave themselves 30 fewer shocks and the receivers 35 fewer shocks as compared to the placebo group.

Study researchers concluded that psychiatric drugs can influence moral decisions in healthy people; however, the drugs may react differently with psychiatric patients.

Source for Today’s Article:
McNamee, D., “How do antidepressants affect moral decision making?” Medical News Today web site, July 3, 2015;