Caught in the act: The impact of audience on the neural response to morally and socially inappropriate behavior

Elizabeth C. Finger, Abigail A. Marsh, Niveen Kamel, Derek G.V. Mitchell, James R. Blair

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

58 Scopus citations


We examined the impact of witnesses on the neural response to moral and social transgressions using fMRI. In this study, participants (N = 16) read short vignettes describing moral and social transgressions in the presence or absence of an audience. In line with our hypothesis, ventrolateral (BA 47) and dorsomedial (BA 8) frontal cortex showed increased BOLD responses to moral transgressions regardless of audience and to social transgressions in the presence of an audience relative to neutral situations. These findings are consistent with the suggestion that these regions of prefrontal cortex modify behavioral responses in response to social cues. Greater activity was observed in left temporal-parietal junction, medial prefrontal cortex and temporal poles to moral and to a lesser extent social transgressions relative to neutral stories, regardless of audience. These regions have been implicated in the representation of the mental states of others (Theory of Mind). The presence of an audience was associated with increased left amygdala activity across all conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)414-421
Number of pages8
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Oct 15 2006



  • Embarrassment
  • Guilt
  • Moral transgression
  • Social response reversal
  • Social transgression
  • Ventrolateral prefrontal cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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