Capital Ideas Blog

The trouble with trolley problems

By Robin Mordfin
August 11, 2014

From: Blog


A runaway trolley is out of control. Ahead of it on the tracks are five people tied up and unable to move. You’re standing too far away to get to the people, but fortuitously, next to a lever that could switch the trolley to another track where only one person is tied up. You have two options: do nothing and let five people die, or pull the lever and let the trolley kill only one person. Which is the right choice?

From a moral standpoint, this is a nearly unanswerable question—which is why ethicists and psychologists have been using it in their studies of how people process such challenges for nearly 50 years. But Daniel M. Bartels of Chicago Booth, and coauthors Christopher W. Bauman of UC Irvine, A. Peter McGraw of UC Boulder, and Caleb Warren of Texas A&M, question researchers’ reliance on this technique in a forthcoming paper in Social & Personality Psychology Compass. (The paper was derived from a conversation that the authors started during a meeting of the Moral Research Lab, which is codirected by Bartels and McGraw.)

Bartels explains that posing such scenarios may not provide accurate results because such “sacrificial dilemmas are really engaging situations that people enjoy thinking about.” This is quite the opposite of what happens when people are actually faced with moral dilemmas, because in those cases, they rarely enjoy themselves. Bartels and his coauthors are concerned that asking such questions may only provide a partial view of how people tend to confront moral dilemmas in their everyday lives.

The researchers are specifically concerned with three elements of sacrificial dilemmas. First, because such questions are amusing, rather than sobering, subjects look forward to mulling over responses and to actually making an argument one way or the other.

Second, the situations presented are so unrealistic and so unlikely to happen that they don’t reflect real life. Saving five people vs. saving one person stuck on trolley tracks simply won’t happen—especially now that only a handful of cities still employ the vehicles. But more importantly, average moral dilemmas—whether to lie to a spouse, whether to keep found money and the like—are mundane.

Finally, these scenarios do not elicit the same psychological processes as true moral situations. Such real-life problems often bring panic, dread and confusion to people as they try to find an answer, responses that are wholly missing from these experiments.

This is not to say that Bartels is suggesting we do away with posed moral-dilemma problems. He notes that such scenarios are important for understanding how people reason, make choices and behave. But he and his coauthors do advocate adding more realistic scenarios to the mix to achieve more persuasive results.

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