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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
BOOS, B., FORNEY, B., KANEASTER, S., MANN, M., MAN (2008). Would You Throw a Person on a Bomb? the Effects of Emotional State and Gender on Moral Reasoning. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 11. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved December 6, 2023 .

Would You Throw a Person on a Bomb? the Effects of Emotional State and Gender on Moral Reasoning

Sponsored by: PHIL WANN (wann@missouriwestern.edu)
The purpose of this experiment was to examine how emotional states affect decision making about a moral dilemma. Male (n=51) and female (n=81) college students were randomly assigned to four emotional state conditions (control/neutral, disgust, happiness, and sadness/empathy). The students were shown photographs for thirty seconds each and then asked a series of questions regarding their emotional state and how strongly they felt that emotion. The students were then presented with a moral dilemma and asked how they would respond in that situation. Although the results showed that the photos induced the desired emotional states, they did not support the hypothesis that emotional state would affect response to the moral dilemma. However, the analysis did show a significant main effect for gender and a significant sex x question interaction. Males and females were equally reluctant to undertake an action that involved direct harm to a person, but males tended to make more utilitarian decisions on questions involving indirect actions.

Would You Throw a Person on a Bomb? The Effects of Emotional State and Gender on Moral Reasoning

The pioneering psychologists in the area of moral psychology were Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg (Monin, Beer & Pizarro 2007). Piaget conceptualized morality in terms of cognitive development and thought children progress naturally through stages of moral development. This belief led him to conclude that adults should simply step aside and allow children to develop morally. Kohlberg extended Piaget`s work and paved the road for most subsequent research. He agreed with Piaget`s stages of moral development and believed that the progression through these stages led to enhanced social knowledge. Kohlberg held that reason prevailed in moral judgments. Piaget and Kohlberg’s theories of moral development were expanded on by Immanuel Kant and David Hume. Kant’s emphasis on reason agreed with research done by Piaget and Kohlberg. However, Hume’s emphasis on emotion is more influential to modern moral reasoning theories. According to Monin, Beer, and Pizarro (2007) the philosopher Immanuel Kant was on the reason side of the debate whereas David Hume, held that reasoning was guided by emotions. Studies consistent with Hume’s view, hold that emotion guides moral judgment in the form of quick, affect laden intuitions. They concluded that it is best to examine moral dilemmas and the interaction between emotion and reason in moral decision making.Haidt (2008) examined this historical debate and formed a new perspective in moral psychology. He explained that people have evolutionary structures that allow them to experience emotional reactions to moral issues. These emotional reactions form the foundation for intuitions about right and wrong. Haidt notes that increasing interest in the emotional side of the debate has led to a multitude of research linking empathy to moral decision making. This model suggests that moral judgment is a rapid intuitive process. People reach a conscious decision but are not consciously aware of the process through which they reach that decision. Haidt explains that people reach an initial intuition and use the moral reasoning process to find support for that decision. Cushman, Young, and Hauser (2006) examined the interaction between intuition and conscious reasoning in moral decision making. Their research examined the three principles that guide moral judgment; the action principle, the intention principle, and the contact principle. The subject rated action as worse than omission, intention as worse than harm as a side effect, and contact as worse than no physical contact. They concluded that the extent to which conscious reasoning or intuition play a more dominant role is dependent on the moral principle being triggered. Empathy and Moral Reasoning Hogan (1969) (as cited by Caruso & Mayer, 1998) defined empathy as the “intellectual or imaginative apprehension of another’s condition or state of mind without actually experiencing that person’s feelings.” In more recent research empathy has been seen as a multi-dimensional construct, leading to the development of a multilevel scale to measure emotional empathy. Batson, Duncan, Ackerman, and Birch (1981) conducted research to show whether or not empathetic emotion was a source of altruistic motivation. Altruistic motivation suggests that the person is being selfless in their efforts to help, whereas egoistic motivation suggests that one has something to benefit or gain from helping another. The researchers manipulated the subjects by instructing them to observe a young woman receiving electrical shocks. The researchers found that the subjects who were intentionally manipulated to feel empathy were more likely to take the young woman’s place; this finding was consistent with the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce and Neuberg (1997) examined the empathy-altruism theory which suggests that empathetic concerns for another results in selflessness and true altruism. The goal of the study was to test their theory that oneness, the ability to perceive more of one’s self in another, is the cause for more helping behavior and that it is not because individuals may feel an empathetic concern for one another. There were six different expectations tested. One expectation was that as relationship closeness intensified so would empathetic concern, another stated that feelings of oneness would increase as the relationship closeness intensified. The third expectation was that empathetic concern would predict the level of helping, also tested was the extent that one’s feelings of oneness would predict the level of helping. Empathetic concern would remain predictive of helping after the influence of the egoistic factors of personal distress and sadness were removed. The final expectation tested was that empathetic concern would no longer be predictive of helping after the influence of oneness was extracted but that oneness would be significantly predictive when empathetic concern was taken out. In each given study, as relationship closeness increased so did empathetic concern. Empathetic concern also predicted willingness to help and remained predictive after egoistic factors were removed. Other research has shown how combinations of emotions such as sympathy, empathy, altruism and other emotions affect one’s decision making in regards to helping behaviors. Loewenstein and Small (2007) focused on a model in which they deemed the “tin man and the scarecrow.” In this model, the tin man is the deliberative side of humans and can be viewed as humans’ rational but uncaring side. The scarecrow is viewed as being caring but immature and irrational. Loewenstein and Small (2007) explain how the model works by showing that a stimulus will either provoke a tin man reaction (deliberation) or a scarecrow reaction (sympathetic) and result in a person’s decision to either provide aid or not to provide aid to another. They point out that one can work without the other and decisions to provide aid can be made without sympathy, however the two emotions work better as a system. Emotional and Cognitive Factors and Moral Reasoning

Moral judgments have recently been discovered to be mediated by two classes of brain processes that compete for a final decision in regards to a type of dilemma that requires personal moral violation to uphold a practical principle. The emotional process is thought to have developed first and consists of automatic responses based on the emotion being felt and not of ethical considerations. A second, more rational process, highlighted by abstract reasoning and control competes with emotions to provide a utilitarian outcome (Valdesolo & DeSteno, 2006). Depending on the context of the dilemma, these two systems can either work together or battle against each other until one “wins.” Valdesolo and DeSteno (2006) found that heightened positive affect and longer decision times independently increased the odds of selecting the utilitarian response to a moral dilemma. Batson, Klein, Highberger, and Shaw (1995) studied this moral dilemma by looking at how empathy-induced altruism affected immoral decision making. Empathy-induced altruism is the emotional process that can either work with, or compete against rational/moral decision making. The researchers found that inducing empathy caused participants to forsake the moral principle of justice to benefit the person for whom they felt empathy. Empathetic feelings can be detrimental and interfere with life and death decisions, or it can work with moral motivation and serve to induce feelings of empathy that are needed to make the right moral decision. Dilemma content and personal cognitions are another important factor in the outcomes of moral reasoning. Waldmann and Deiterich (2007) considered different types of dilemmas to determine what makes a decision acceptable or unacceptable. Killing someone in a hospital so that more may live is considered by most to be immoral. Diverting a train that will save five by killing one, however, is seen as reasonable. In each instance, the goal is to minimize the number of casualties and both dilemmas result in at least one person dying. The only difference in the dilemmas is whether there is direct contact with the victim who will ultimately die. Results confirmed that people are more in favor of solutions that do not include direct harm; even when it comes to saving lives. The tendency for people to follow the principle of the least harm can be affected by social affiliations and feelings of in-group versus out-group relationships. Just as most people would help family over a stranger, people are more likely to help strangers who are similar to themselves rather than those who are different. Indick (2003) explored social affiliations and found that participants who were in a “friends” scenario were less likely to report the negative behaviors of the character than were the participants who were in a lower affiliation. Brain scans confirmed that groups of people stereotyped as low competent and low warmth, such as the homeless or drug addicts, elicited no response from the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), but showed increased reactions in the amygdala and insula (consistent with disgust). The results indicated that the brain reacted to this group in the same way it would have for a non-social cognition—the people seen as the lowest of the low were not even comprehend by the brain as being human. The purpose of the current study was to examine how different emotional states would affect the outcome of a moral dilemma. It was hypothesized that a strong negative emotional state would induce a non-utilitarian emotional response, especially in individuals with high levels of empathy.

Participants One hundred and thirty-two introductory psychology students from Missouri Western State University participated in this experiment. There were 51 males and 81 females with ages ranging from 16 to 52 (M=21.5). Prior to the study, the participants completed the Emotional Empathy Scale (Caruso & Mayer, 1998) in class. The participants were randomly assigned to a group based on the session they signed up for and completed an informed consent form approved by the MWSU Institutional Review Board when they arrived in the laboratory.Procedure Participants were randomly assigned to one of four emotional state conditions: Control/Neutral, Disgust, Happiness, and Sadness/Empathy. Upon entering the room, participants were told that they would be participating in two different studies to minimize association of the emotional state questions with the moral dilemmas. Researchers told the participants that the first experiment was to assess visual memory. The subjects were then shown a set of four pictures depicting one of the four emotional states using a PowerPoint slide show. Afterwards the participants were asked to rate how strongly they felt the emotion. The researchers then informed the participants that the second study would begin. The participants were told that the second study was to asses how well one would handle an emergency situation. Participants were presented with a moral dilemma and then asked to make decisions regarding what they would choose to do if put in the situation.

A one-way ANOVA indicated that the groups differed significantly on overall ratings of emotions, F(3,128) = 10.04, p<.001 (see Figure 1). Sadness and disgust pictures created significantly stronger emotions in the participants. A 4(emotional state) x 2 (sex) x 3(question) mixed-factorial ANOVA was calculated comparing ratings on the three questions for participants of both sexes in the four emotional state groups. A significant main effect for sex was found F (1, 124) = 6.31, p <.01. Males’ ratings were significantly higher than females’ ratings. There was no significant main effect for emotional states (F (3, 124) = 0.19, p >.05). Ratings did not differ significantly across the four emotional states. There was no significant interaction found between emotional state and sex (F (3, 124) = 1.12, p >.05). There was, however, a significant difference in the manner of action participants would take in response to different questions on the dilemma. People would rather throw a bomb on a person than take the deliberate action of harm and throw the person on the bomb. A significant main effect was found for question 1, with ratings on questions 2 and 3 being higher (F (1, 124) = 50.08, p <.001). There was also a significant interaction found between question and sex (F (1, 124) = 5.76, p <.02). Men had significantly higher ratings than women on questions 2 and 3 (see Figure 2). Thus, males tended to make the more utilitarian response on these questions that required indirect harm (throwing the bomb). There was no significant interaction found between question and emotional state (F (3,124) =1.26, p>.05), nor was there a higher order group x sex x question interaction (F (3, 124) = 2.12, p> .05).

Our results indicated that although we could manipulate a positive or negative emotional state within the subjects, their emotional state had no significant effect on whether or not they chose the utilitarian decision. These findings are not consistent with the findings of Valdesolo and Desteno (2006). We believe that our results were not consistent because of the emotional state participants were put it. We are unable to know if the emotional state we tried to place our participants in, lasted long enough to answer our moral dilemma problem. Agerstrom and Archer (2006) discussed the idea that males and females differ in their responses to moral dilemmas. They hypothesized that males are more likely than females to choose the utilitarian decision and females are more likely to base their decisions on emotional reactions. Our results supported Agerstom and Archer’s (2006) hypothesis in that males were more likely to take the indirect (utilitarian) action and throw a bomb on a person than females were. Waldmann and Dieterich (2007) proposed different types of dilemmas to see the difference in direct and indirect actions and to determine which was more acceptable. The results from their study indicate that people are more in favor of solutions that do not include direct actions. The research that we conducted supported this hypothesis in that although males were more likely to take an indirect action and throw a bomb on a person than females were, neither gender preferred to take the direct action and throw the person directly on the bomb.We believe that our team yielded important research that still needs to be elaborated upon, specifically in the area of moral reasoning. With future research we think a different approach should be used to conduct the experiment starting with the participants. We believe students at Missouri Western State University who are at various levels of cognitive development and maturity levels should be used, instead of only college freshmen. By sampling students with different maturity levels we may be able to show a difference in how moral reasoning develops.We would also change the procedure of our experiment. Our results showed that while we did induce an emotional state it did not affect whether or not the participant was more likely to choose the utilitarian decision. We would still use the PowerPoint slides to evoke emotion, but would add dramatic music to the background. Adding music may produce a stronger emotion that would persist throughout the duration of testing with respect to the moral dilemma questions.

Batson, C.D., Duncan, B.D., Ackerman, P., Buckley, T., & Birch, K. (1981). Is empathetic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 290-302.Batson, C.D., Klein, T.R., Highberger, L., & Shaw, L.L. (1995). Immorality from empathy-induced altruism: When compassion and justice conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 1042-1054.Caruso, D.R., & Mayer, J.D. (1998). A Measure of emotional empathy for adolescents and adults. Unpublished Manuscript, University of New Hampshire.Cialdini, R.B., Brown, S.L., Lewis, B.P., Luce, C., & Neuberg, S.L. (1997). Reinterpreting the empathy-altruism relationship: When one into one equals oneness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 481-194.Cushman, F., Young, L., & Hauser, M. (2006). The role of conscious reasoning and intuition in moral judgment: Testing three principles of harm. Psychological Science, 16, 1082-1089.Haidt, J. (2008). Morality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 65-72.Indick, W. (2003). Individual variations in responses to a hypothetical moral dilemma. Individual Differences Research, 1, 29-38. Loewenstein, G., & Small, D. (2007). The scarecrow and the tin man: The vicissitudes of human sympathy and caring. Review of General Psychology, 11, 112-126.Monin, B., Beer, J.S., & Pizarro, D.A. (2007). Deciding versus reacting: Conceptions of moral judgment and the reason-affect debate. Review of General Psychology,11, 99-111.Valdesolo, P. & DeSteno, D. (2006). Manipulations of emotional context shape moral judgment. Psychological Science, 17, 476-477.Waldmann, M. & Dieterich, J. (2007). Throwing a bomb on a person versus throwing a person on a bomb: Intervention myopia in moral intuitions. Psychological Science, 13, 247-253.

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Submitted 5/1/2008 12:40:09 PM
Last Edited 5/2/2008 10:54:12 AM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

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