Why do people pirate? A neuroimaging investigation

Robert Eres, Winnifred R Louis, Pascal Molenberghs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


It is not uncommon for people to openly admit to pirating information from the internet despite the known legal consequences. Those same people are often less inclined to steal the same physical item from a shop. This raises the question, why do people have fewer reservations with stealing intangible items compared to tangible? Using questionnaires and fMRI we provide evidence across three studies as to the differences between tangible and intangible theft. In a questionnaire (Study 1), participants revealed that across different conditions they were more willing to steal intangible compared to tangible goods. Study 2a used fMRI to reveal that a network involved in imagining objects was more active when participants were representing intangible versus tangible objects, suggesting people have greater difficulty representing intangible items. Study 2b used fMRI to show that when stealing tangible objects versus intangible, participants had increased activation in left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, an area typically activated in response to morally laden situations. The findings from the current investigation provide novel insights into the higher prevalence of intangible theft and suggest that differential neural representation of tangible and intangible items may, in part, explain why people are more willing to steal intangible items.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)366-378
Number of pages13
JournalSocial Neuroscience
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2017


  • morality
  • guilt
  • fMRI
  • piracy
  • theft
  • orbitofrontal cortex

Cite this