How do we come to develop our moral judgments, and to what extent do we actually adhere to them?

Would you kill one person to save five others? This moral dilemma was investigated by a group of researchers from Michigan State University in an innovative study published in the experimental psychology journal Emotion. Participants wore a head mounted device which presented a 3-D simulation of the following scenario: a runaway boxcar is on course to crush five people who cannot escape its trajectory. Sensors were also attached to the participant’s fingertips in order to observe emotional arousal. Participants were given the power to re-route the boxcar onto a different track, directing it towards another, singular individual by flicking a switch. This ‘trolley problem’ has been contemplated by philosophers for decades, but this study indicates the first time that the dilemma has been considered as a behavioural experiment in a virtual environment where the consequences of the actions are vividly apparent.

The results of the study are overwhelming: 133 of the 147 participants (approximately 90%) chose to re-route the boxcar, eleven did not flick the switch, and three flicked the switch before returning it to the original position. These results indicate that people are willing to reject the moral rule ‘Thou shalt not kill’ if it minimizes harm. Effectively, morality can be overcome in order to ensure what is often called the ‘greater good’. Carlos David Navarrete, evolutionary psychologist and the lead researcher of the project said that these findings were consistent with past research which was not virtual based.

Research in June 2008 involving neuro-imaging discovered that people have the ability to suppress their emotional reactions, thus allowing them to make decisions based on careful reasoning and consideration of consequences Adam Moore of Princeton University and his colleagues Brian Clark and Michael Kane of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro measured the participants’ ‘working memory capacity’; in other words, their ability to mentally cope with multiple pieces of information. These individuals then underwent the similar ‘trolley problem’ test.

The results demonstrated that people who could best juggle information were more able to control their emotions, and thus engage in ‘deliberative processing’. The authors stated: “In these emotion laden scenarios, people with high working memory capacity were not only more consistent in their judgments but their answers indicated that they were considering the consequences of their choices in a way that the other participants were not. This suggests that emotional reactions to moral issues can drive our judgments and motivate action but can also blind us to the consequences of our decisions in some cases.”

Navarrete’s study reiterates this insight into the few people who do not or cannot suppress their emotional reactions to the moral dilemma. Sensors attached to their fingertips indicated that the participants who did not pull the switch were more emotionally aroused during the experiment; Navarrete postulates that this may be because people freeze up during high-anxiety experiences, “I think humans have an aversion to harming others that needs to be overridden by something. By rational thinking we can sometimes override it – by thinking about the people we will save, for example. But for some people, that increase in anxiety may be so overpowering that they don’t make the utilitarian choice, the choice for the greater good.”


Hilary Boden


Image credit- throgers