Decisions in the “Trolley Dilemma” Differ From Real-Life Behavior

Maybe you’ve heard this one: there’s a runaway trolley car headed toward a fork in the tracks. Standing on one set of tracks, oblivious to the trolley car careening out of control, is a group of five people. On the other set of tracks, also oblivious, is a single person.

If you stand by and watch, the trolley car will continue onto the set of tracks with five people, almost certainly killing them all. But you have the option to switch the car onto the tracks with only one person, saving the five people but killing the one.

So what d’you do? On one hand, it seems better for one person to die than five. On the other hand, you will have to bear the moral burden of choosing that one person’s death.

There are different ways this dilemma can be modified. For example, if the one person is a friend or family member, does that change your decision?

Supposedly, the way people respond to the trolley dilemma tells us something about how they make moral decisions in real life. Obviously, though, this is a highly theoretical, speculative situation. It’s unlikely that very many people have actually encountered, in everyday life, the problem of the runaway trolley, the fork in the tracks, and the two groups of unaware bystanders.

Which raises the question: if the whole thing is a thought experiment, do people’s answers really predict what they’d do in the trolley scenario?

Recently, a group of researchers from Ghent University looked into this question, publishing their results in a paper titled Of Mice, Men and Trolleys: Hypothetical Judgment Versus Real-Life Behavior in Trolley-Style Moral Dilemmas.

Of course, there are serious ethical problems with reenacting the trolley dilemma in reality just to see whether people would choose to kill five people or one. So the researchers made some modifications to the dilemma.

In their experiment, people were presented with a group of five mice and a single mouse. If they did nothing, the five mice would, supposedly, receive an electric shock. But they could intervene by administering a shock to the single mouse, in which case the five mice would be spared. In reality, none of the mice were shocked. For the sake of the experiment, though, the participants were led to believe that one group of mice would be.

Some of the participants in the experiment were presented with a hypothetical version of the dilemma in which they were asked to imagine the scenario and predict what they’d do. Others were actually asked to choose between administering the shock to one mouse or letting the shock be administered to five.

As it turned out, people’s behavior in the hypothetical and the real-life versions of the experiment differed considerably. In fact, people were twice as likely to administer the shock to the single mouse in the theoretical version of the dilemma than in the real version. So while many people agreed in principle that administering the shock to the single mouse was acceptable in order to protect the five mice, they had trouble choosing to administer the shock when it came down to it.

These results show that some caution is necessary in interpreting people’s responses to the “trolley problem.” People’s hypothetical moral principles don’t always predict their actual behavior. To put it another way: when we’re put in an ethically ambiguous situation, we don’t always react the way we’d expect.

Image: Flickr/Mike Knell