Carolina Pletti is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Psychology, LMU Munich. Her research focuses on the neurocognitive and developmental aspects of morality and empathy.

Carolina Pletti, PhD

My research focuses on the neurocognitive and developmental aspects of morality and empathy.

I'm a Post-doctoral researcher at the Social Development Lab, Department of Psychology, LMU Munich.


I have always been fascinated by social processes.

How do we understand what others are feeling?

How do we decide how we should behave towards others?

Why do we care for others’ well-being, and what motivates us to behave in a fair and caring way towards others?

And finally, which cognitive and neural mechanisms subserve such processes?

In my research, I start from such questions, and I explore social and moral cognition using methods like electroencephalogram and event-related potentials, functional near-infrared spectroscopy and functional magnetic resonance imaging.

At the moment, I am focusing especially on these areas:

Neural correlates of fairness in children

This line of research investigates the neural correlates of fairness, with an initial focus on equity norms, in preschool children. It is already know that at the age of 5 children show signs of a norm of equity, that is, they expect poor recipients to receive more than rich recipients in a resource distribution, and protest when this is not the case (Wörle & Paulus, 2018). In my project, I am investigating how equitable and inequitable distributions are processed in the brain of 5 years old.

Neural and cognitive bases of the moral self

The term “moral-self concept” refers to how important it is for someone’s sense of self to be a moral person. Despite theoretical models and behavioral studies showing a relation between moral self concept and prosocial behavior, little is known about which mechanisms allow this relation (Hardy & Carlo, 2011; Hertz & Krettenauer, 2015). How do people with a strong moral self-concept end up behaving more morally? Are they more able to detect moral content in the environment? Is moral content more salient and arousing for them? Do they have pre-activated moral schemas through which they filter their perception? Is moral action more rewarding for them, would they feel worse if they did not behave morally, or both of these things? This part of the project aims at answering these questions. With several studies using neuroimaging methods such as EEG, fNIRS and fMRI or psychophysiological indexes such as pupil dilation, we will analyze if and how the moral self concept relates to perceiving moral content and performing moral actions. This research line is part of my work as postdoctoral researcher in Prof. Markus Paulus’s ERC project “Unravelling the moral self”.

Development of empathy and concern

In this line of research, on which I work together with Ms. Tamara Haack and Prof. Markus Paulus, we focus on how empathy and concern develop in infancy. Classical theories on the development of empathy posit that empathic concern develops in the second year of life, as children start developing a sense of self as separated from others (Hoffman, 1975, 1990). However, empirical data showed signs of concern in younger infants (Roth-Hanania et al., 2011). We are tackling this discrepancy in a longitudinal project, in which we investigate signs of concern in infants and how they relate to characteristics of mother-child interaction. This research line also focuses on the perception and recognition of emotional vocal and facial expressions.

Peer-reviewed journal manuscripts
– as first author:

Pletti, C., Paulus, M. Neural processing of equitable and inequitable distributions in 5-year-old children.

Social Neuroscience 15 (5), 584-599. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2020.1816578. Link

Pletti C., Decety, J., Paulus, M. (2019). Moral identity relates to the neural processing of third-party moral behavior. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 14 (4), 435-445. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsz016. Link

Pletti, C., Scheel, A., & Paulus, M. (2017). Intrinsic altruism or social motivation–What does pupil dilation tell us about children's helping behavior? Frontiers in psychology, 8, 2089. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02089. Link

Pletti C., Lotto L., Buodo G., Sarlo M. (2017) It’s immoral, but I’d do it! Psychopathy traits affect decision-making in sacrificial dilemmas and in everyday moral situations. British Journal of Psychology 108(2), 351-368. doi:10.1111/bjop.12205. Link

Pletti C., Lotto L., Tasso A., Sarlo M. (2016) Will I Regret It? Anticipated Negative Emotions Modulate Choices in Moral Dilemmas. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1918, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01918. Link

Pletti C., Sarlo M., Palomba D., Rumiati R., Lotto L. (2015) Evaluation of the legal consequences of action affects neural activity and emotional experience during the resolution of moral dilemmas. Brain and Cognition 94, 24-31, doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2015.01.004. Link

Pletti C., Dalmaso M., Sarlo M., Galfano G. (2015) Gaze cuing of attention in snake phobic women: the influence of facial expression. Frontiers in Psychology 6:454, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00454. Link

Peer-reviewed journal manuscripts
– as co-author:

Christner, N., Pletti, C., Paulus, M. (in press) Emotion understanding and the moral self-concept as motivators of prosocial behavior in middle childhood. Cognitive Development.

The ManyBabies Consortium (2020). Quantifying sources of variability in infancy research using the infant-directed speech preference. Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science 3 (1), 24-52. doi: 10.1177/2515245919900809. Link

Rütgen, M., Pletti, C., Tik, M., Kraus, C., Pfabigan, D.M., Sladky, R., Klöbl, M., Woletz, M., Vanicek, T., Windischberger, C., Lanzemberger, R., Lamm, C. (2019). Antidepressant treatment, not depression, leads to reductions in behavioral and neural responses to pain empathy. Translational Psychiatry 9 (1), 164. doi: 10.1038/s41398-019-0496-4. Link

Rütgen, M., Seidel, E. M., Pletti, C., Riečanský, I., Gartus, A., Eisenegger, C., & Lamm, C. (2018). Psychopharmacological modulation of event-related potentials suggests that first-hand pain and empathy for pain rely on similar opioidergic processes. Neuropsychologia, 116, 5-14., doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.04.023. Link

Cellini N. , Lotto L., Pletti C., Sarlo M. (2017) Daytime REM sleep affects emotional experience but not decision choices in moral dilemmas. Scientific Reports, 7 (1), 11059. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-11530-4. Link


16 November 2020

New publication by Pletti and Paulus on Social Neuroscience

New publication by Pletti and Paulus on Social Neuroscience

This study focuses on how preschool children process equitable and inequitable third-party resource distributions. Results show how the difference between equitable and inequitable distributions is detected quite early by the children’s brain, already at around XXX ms after the distribution’s onset.

15 May 2020

New paper by Christner, Pletti and Paulus accepted for publication on Cognitive Development

In this new paper, we investigated the relations between the moral self-concept, sharing behavior, and emotions that children (5 to 9 years old) either feel or anticipate they would feel after sharing. Overall, the moral self-concept was positively related to prosocial behavior. In addition, emotional consequences as well as anticipated emotions explained age differences in sharing behavior. These results demonstrate that both the moral self-concept and emotions are relevant motivators of prosocial behavior in middle childhood.

November 2019

Carolina Pletti has been awarded the LMU Excellent seed funding "Junior Researcher Fund"