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Hypothetical Scenarios do not Track the Moral Decisions People Make in the Real World, Study Finds

Posted May 24, 2018

Researchers often use hypothetical scenarios — such as the ubiquitous variations of the infamous “trolley problem” — to gauge people’s moral character and predict their actions in a variety of different circumstances.

A new study recently published in the journal Psychological Science had challenged this approach by showing that real-world situations prompt us to consider actual consequences rather than deduce the right course of action from our moral principles.

“Not only did we find that hypothetical moral judgement appeared to be largely unrelated to real-life behaviour, we also found that the individual difference measures that typically predict hypothetical moral judgement did not predict real-life behaviour,” said first author  Dries H. Bostyn from Ghent University.

In the study, 192 university students were asked to complete an on-line questionnaire comprised of a series of hypothetical moral dilemmas and measures designed to assess a variety of personal qualities, such as desire for cognitive challenge, level of empathy, moral identity, and others.

Abstract moral reasoning may not be as reflective of real-world decision-making than thought previously. Image credit: McGeddon via, CC BY-SA 4.0.

One or two weeks later the participants were invited back to the lab where they found two metal cages, one containing five mice, and the second only a single mouse. Both cages were connected to an electroshock machine and a laptop showing a 20-second countdown.

The participants could wait for the timer to run out, resulting in the five mice receiving a very painful, but non-lethal shock, or push the button and redirect the unpleasant experience to the sole mouse. Neither of the cages were actually hooked up to the machine.

In conjunction, 83 participants were given the an analogous questionnaire and later presented with the same dilemma, only in written format.

Results showed that participants who only received the hypothetical scenario were twice as likely to choose the passive option as those who were faced with an (apparently) real dilemma. None of the decision-making preferences indicated by the participants had any bearing on their actual behaviour.

“It could be that with hypothetical judgement we are free to pick the option that is most socially acceptable as we do not have to live with the consequences of that decision,” speculated Bostyn. “However, in real life, the pressure to “do the right thing” is much bigger”.


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