Do you have loco-motives? What the ‘trolley problem’ shows us about human behavior
As we discussed in our interview with Jon Wertheim last week, there are all sorts of unconscious motivations that influence the choices we make. Why do we choose to act in some situations, but not in others? Why is harm permissible in one case, but not the other? When is killing okay, and when is it wrong?
Psychologists, philosophers, biologists and other researchers have spent decades trying to uncover these hidden intuitions. And one of the main tools they use to study moral decision-making are the four “trolley problems” you just answered. So what do they tell us?
Well, for our purposes, they illustrate an important psychological principle known as omission bias: Committing a harmful act (killing one person) is generally seen as morally acceptable only if is an unintended consequence of a greater good (saving four people). This is also known as the law of double effect. Generally, human beings are uncomfortable with intended harm, and we won’t insert ourselves into a situation when we know that doing so may have negative consequences. But those same negative consequences are considered acceptable in other situations if they are seen as unintended.
Take the basketball example: Referees have been shown to call far fewer fouls in the final moments of close games. Why? No one can be sure, and there are probably a number of reasons at play. But omission bias may be one of them. Referees may be uncomfortable intentionally causing “harm” to the game — giving one team an advantage by allowing them to score points on free-throws.
Allowing players to foul their opponents freely, of course, also gives them an advantage over the other team. In both cases, the advantage could be enough to win the game in its final moments. But in the first scenario, the negative consequence — giving one team an advantage — was intended by the referee. In the second, the negative consequence may be considered acceptable by the referee or by the home crowd, because it is unintended harm.
Of course, there are all sorts of other factors involved: Whether the referee likes one team better than the other, whether he personally knows the players on one of the teams, or whether calling a foul would cause the home team to lose.
But our moral intuitions — ingrained in us by thousands of years of evolution — certainly play a big part.