A trolley is careening down the track, and will surely crash and kill five passengers. You, an onlooker, see a switch that you can pull to reroute the trolley onto another track and save the riders—but a workman on that track will die instead. What would you do?

This “trolley” problem and its various iterations have become mainstays in the psychology of decision-making. But Chicago Booth’s Daniel Bartels, along 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, argue “trolleyology” needs to be revamped.

Bartels and his coauthors have three objections:

  • Real-life moral dilemmas aren’t funny, yet trolley problems often come across that way. The setups can be so farfetched that they make participants laugh, which may cause them to disassociate from the issues ostensibly at stake.
  • The scenarios are often irrelevant. Rescue workers or military personnel might have to grapple with these questions, but most of us won’t. “Does a trolley dilemma really reflect the moral choices people tend to experience in their daily lives?” asks Bauman. “How often do people have a choice of quickly acting to save or sacrifice others? Even though a handful of people do face situations like these, how certain can we be that judgments in these extreme situations reflect the way people make all other moral decisions?”
  • Trolley problems may not rely on the same psychological processes that real-world dilemmas do. In real life, moral decisions are often divisive. But in trolley dilemmas, participants are usually intrigued that others would choose differently. “Consider political issues that tap into people’s moral beliefs,” says Bauman. “People don’t just agree to disagree, they condemn those who disagree with them. But in trolley problems, people don’t behave this way—they’re curious. If this one difference in how people respond to trolley problems and real-world moral situations exists, then many differences may exist. We really have to worry about how much trolley problems generalize and explain moral psychology in general.”

If trolleyology really doesn’t address what it sets out to, what’s the alternative? Bartels and his coresearchers suggest that psychologists need to rely more on setups that are relevant to real life. “There are any number of realistic situations that researchers could study,” says Bauman. “Rather than studying trolleys, consider business managers who have to decide whom to let go during rounds of layoffs, or doctors who must decide when to continue to treat patients who have a low probability of surviving and when to use the same scarce resources to treat others. Most important, let’s study lots of moral situations rather than fixate on any one in particular. Let’s also make any situation we study as realistic and plausible as possible.”

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