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Psychology’s favourite moral thought experiment doesn’t predict real-world behaviour

04 Feb

Would you wilfully hurt or kill one person so as to save multiple others? That’s the dilemma at the heart of moral psychology’s favourite thought experiment and its derivatives. In the classic case, you must decide whether or not to pull a lever to divert a runaway mining trolley so that it avoids killing five people and instead kills a single individual on another line. A popular theory in the field states that, to many of us, so abhorrent is the notion of deliberately harming someone that our “deontological” instincts deter us from pulling the lever; on the other hand, the more we intellectualise the problem with cool detachment, the more likely we will make a utilitarian or consequentialist judgment and divert the trolley.

just under 200 of the participants were invited to the psych lab, one at a time, to take part in a real-life moral dilemma involving live mice. The participants saw two cages – one housing one mouse, the other housing five – each wired to an electroshock machine. They were told that in 20 seconds, if they did nothing, the machine would deliver a very painful but nonlethal shock to the cage containing five mice. However, if the participants pressed a button in front of them, they could divert the electric shock to the cage containing one mouse, thus saving the other five from pain

The participants who performed the real-life mouse task behaved differently than those who made a purely hypothetical decision – they were less than half as likely to let the five mice get shocked (16 per cent of them left the button unpressed compared with 34 per cent of the hypothetical group). In other words, faced with a real-life dilemma, the volunteers were more consequentialist / utilitarian; that is, more willing to inflict harm for the greater good.

Read more at BPS

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Posted by on February 4, 2019 in cognitive science

 

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