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Is It Moral to Laugh When Innocent People Die?

July 02, 2014

New study finds decades-old psychological “sacrificial dilemma” experiments may have outlived their usefulness

A runaway trolley is out of control. Ahead of it on the tracks are five people tied up and unable to move. You are too far away to untie the people, but if you act quickly, you could push a very large man in front of the trolley and stop its progress. Do you do nothing and let five people die, or kill the large stranger?

For the past few decades, many psychologists and other behavioral scientists have used this scenario, known as the trolley problem, to shed light on how people make moral decisions in their everyday lives. Experiments involving the trolley problem and similar "sacrificial dilemmas" are now the bedrock of some major theories of morality that have been featured in scores of academic papers, college textbooks, and popular media outlets.

But a new paper by University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Daniel M. Bartels explains that these scenarios may have outlived their usefulness and provide a distorted view of morality.

In "Concerns About Trolley Problems and Other Sacrificial Dilemmas in Moral Psychology," to be published in an upcoming issue of Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Bartels, together with Christopher W. Bauman of the University of California, Irvine; Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado Boulder; and Caleb Warren of Texas A&M University, point out three primary elements of trolley problems that render them questionable tools for examining how people make moral choices.

The paper was derived from a conversation that the authors started during a meeting of the Moral Research Lab (MoRL; http://moralresearchlab.org/), which is co-directed by Bartels and McGraw.

"Sacrificial dilemmas are really engaging situations that people enjoy thinking about," Bartels says. "But when people are actually faced with real moral dilemmas, they rarely view them as a lark. So we are concerned that studying these situations may only provide a partial view of how people confront moral problems in their everyday lives."

First, because such situations are often amusing, rather than sobering, subjects disengage. Rather than feel that something important is at stake, they look forward to mulling over responses and making an argument one way or the other.

Second, the situations are so unrealistic and so unlikely to happen that they don't reflect real life. Few people will ever have to make snap decisions in unfamiliar situations that pose such stark choices, as in the trolley problem. The artificiality of the situation affects the way people respond, so it would make more sense to study more realistic situations, such as when engineers evaluate risk thresholds for product safety, managers evaluate cost structures and consider employee layoffs, and medical professionals allocate scarce or expensive medical resources.

Finally, the trolley problem does not engage the same psychological processes as true moral situations. For example, real-life moral problems ignite passions and divide those who disagree, but these responses are wholly missing from people's reactions to sacrificial dilemmas.

"We are not saying that all moral dilemmas and scenarios should be done away with," Bartels adds. "We think they are important for understanding how people reason, make choices and behave. But we think that adding more realistic scenarios to the mix is essential to advancing the science of morality."