April 20, 2024

Absolute morality garners trust, says new study

People who hold to moral absolutes in ethical dilemmas appear to be more trusted than those who engage in a cost/benefit analysis.

In an innovative empirical study, researchers from Oxford and Cornell universities have found that people who hold to moral absolutes in certain ethical dilemmas are more trusted among their peers than those who engage in situational analyses. 

Jim A.C. Everett, Oxford PhD student and Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University, worked with Molly Crockett from Oxford and David Pizarro from Cornell University to test whether our default reliance on moral rules has an evolutionary basis. 

The researchers asked participants to consider several variations of moral dilemmas where one must decide whether or not to sacrifice an innocent person in order to save the lives of many others. 

They then asked each participant a question about the others who took place in the study: did they prefer as social partners those who took a rule-based approach, or those who made cost/benefit moral judgements.

“Across 9 experiments, with more than 2,400 participants, we found that people who took an absolute approach to the dilemmas (refusing to kill an innocent person, even when this maximized the greater good) were seen as more trustworthy than those who advocated a more flexible, consequentialist approach”, said senior author Dr. Molly Crockett.

When asked to entrust another person with a sum of money, participants handed over more money, and were more confident of getting it back, when dealing with someone who refused to sacrifice one to save many, the researchers found.

However, simply deciding whether or not to sacrifice an innocent person was not the only thing that mattered: how the choice was made was crucial. Someone who had decided to sacrifice one life to save five but had found that decision difficult was more trusted than someone who had found the decision easy.

The scenarios used by the researchers included the famous Trolley Problem, as well as a thought experiment known as ‘the soldier’s dilemma’.

Absolute morality garners trust, say new study
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
moral psychology