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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Who knows the trolley dilemma?

It's a simple little thought experiment in ethics. Here's a variation:

You are a station master at a railway and a runaway train is speeding through the station. Ahead of it is a split line, and the train is headed down Line A if you do not act. At the end of Line A is a single surveyor, inspecting the tracks, oblivious to the fact there is a train headed for him. At the end of Line B is a group of 4 or 5 workmen doing some maintenance.

You cannot stop the train, but you can redirect it down Line B. Do you?

Most people will answer No. It's a tragedy, but the loss of one life is better than the loss of 5.

You are a station master at a railway and a runaway train is speeding through the station. Ahead of it is a split line, and the train is headed down Line A if you do not act. At the end of Line A is a group of 4 or 5 workmen doing some maintenance, oblivious to the fact there is a train headed for them. At the end of Line B is a single surveyor, inspecting the tracks.

You cannot stop the train, but you can redirect it down Line B. Do you?

Many people will answer Yes for the same reason. The loss of one life is a tragedy, yet your actions (though difficult and emotional) will save the lives of many.


You're standing on top of a bridge with a work colleague (this is the first time you met him, you know nothing of him, and you've not exchanged any words) and you notice a runaway train (underneath the bridge) is headed for a group of workmen. You know (being a veteran train-yard employee) that you can stop the train if you pushed your work colleague off the bridge and in-front of the train. Assuming it is not an option to jump yourself; do you push your colleague?

And here the same reasoning applies - the loss of one life is a tragedy, and the saving of many lives is virtuous. Yet here people come unstuck. There's a hundred different questions people will ask to avoid answering, "Can I push a weight instead of them?", "Why can't I jump?", "Can I yell to the workers?” All valid questions, but missing the point. The point is - do you act and save the lives of many, for the life of one? There are also some valid perspectives, some people say the act of killing is always wrong, thus to let 5 people die is the moral decision. Others may also argue that it's fate or destiny, or providence, that the 5 will die, and so saying No is moral. Yet most people in western countries waver.

What if you were told that the very same event - one man was pushed by another to save a group - happened 6 months ago. Did that man act ethically? One a scale of 1 - 5 (where 1 = despicable and repugnant, and 5 = even Mother Teresa would've pushed him) how would you rate that man's actions?

What if you had special foresight and you knew that in exactly 6 months one man would be pushed to save the lives of 5 others. Nothing could be done in the intervening period to change this fact. One a scale of 1 - 5, how would you rate that man's actions?

Do those scores differ?

Findings by Caruso (2010) suggest that they might. Over a series of experiments (relating to far tamer examples) it was found that events in the past were rated as more ethical / fair than the exact same events depicted in the future. The examples they used related to economic fairness, involving the ultimatum game, as well as real-life examples such as vending machines that charge more during hot days.

They argue that emotional reactions are there to prepare an organism to react to a given situation. They argue (in part) that past events evoke less emotional response because less action need be taken. Additionally, events in the future appear to be under our influence, and so it appears as though there are more options to be taken. Additionally, once a tragedy occurs we engage in all kinds of psychological processes to rationalize it, and to integrate it into our functioning (or reject it completely).

I think it's an interesting idea, but the future and past are necessarily very complex and abstract concepts. My thoughts are if emotional responses are there for an organism to act (a very acceptable proposition, as far as I'm concerned) then the hypothesis should hold of distance as well. And so you might pose the question:

How do you feel about the following? Just last week, in (insert hometown here) A man on a bridge... pushed another... saved many lives..."


Just last week in (insert faraway-but-domestic-town) that A man on a bridge... pushed another... saved many lives..."

In both cases (past - distant vs. future - near) emotions are limited in their usefulness. You need not act (or even feel) if the event occurred on the other side of the country in a place you'd never likely go, yet you may need to act if such an event occurred three streets over, at a place you go frequently. There's obviously more to the problem, but I'd be interested to see how it turns out...

What are your thoughts on the topic? Is it ethical to push? Do you think that the weight of this example outweighs the tamer examples of Caruso (2010) and so is not applicable, and do you think my alternative would yield different results?


Caruso, E. (2010). When the future feels worse than the past: A temporal inconsistency in moral judgment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139 (4), 610-624 DOI: 10.1037/a0020757

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Blog Comments
Christopher Phipps

Guest Comment

I don't really have a position on the ethics of these situations, but I think you bring up an excellent point about distance. It's fair to assume, I think, that human cognition evolved primarily as a means to reason about events close in space and time. It seems fair to conclude that emotions work roughly the same way.

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This is a very interesting topic, the way we think about past/future events and near/far events, I think that holds true for other categories. Like if the railroad guy/girl was white or some other ethnicity, what religion were they, our moral assessment of his/her actions would be different. Don't you think?

It all depends on how much this stuff can affect us, how much can it impact our lives. The more close/similar the situation is to what we think our life is.. the more we care, the more real the scenario becomes.

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I wouldn't push anyone else on the tracks. I would only sacrifice myself. There is no reason why it couldn't be you.

I don't think any of us can judge the value of the one life vs. the five lives.


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Jade - How did you answer for the rail-switching examples? Did you switch or not switch in either of them?

Evie - Yeah, I was thinking about bring race into it, but that's a whole other area (a very interesting area, though). So you if the example read ... 5 chinese/african-american/ethnicity x engineers are looking at rails and going to be hit, and one white surveyor wouldhave to be sacrficed [and vice-versa]... my feeling is the answers wouldn't change but the way people felt about answering would. For instance, they might respond quicker when sacrficing a solo black guy, and take a moment or two longer when sacrficiing the white guy (assuming white respondents). And if you hooked them up to an EFG you might be able to record some interesting facial responses that might give away their emotions... I'll see if I can look into it.

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So you don't think it's significant enough to change answers... I think it is. I'm sad to say I know quite a few orthodox people here who very openly state that the lives of people of other religions are far less valuable. In fact, many of them only pray for themselves, not for the 'sinners' who live in the big city and go out to clubs at night, even though they are of the same religion.. And you don't wanna know what they have to say about the value, or rather lack thereof, of animal life..

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Wow. My understanding of predjudice is that while that there are some people who are explicitly predjudiced, it more often manifests in very subtle ways. That's how I based my answers, but that's not to say that there are those who will openly claim the lives of their tribe are worth more than others.

It's a little shocking to hear it exists so openly... better the devil you know, I suppose


I lot of research has gone into the more cognitive factors of detecting subtle racism. Here's a link to one attempt:

It's called the Implicit Association Test. There's a lot of support for it, and a lot of valid criticisms against it. Personally, I think it's being misused in many contexts (such as racism) but does have value, as it does seem to tap into something unconscious. Try it, see what you think...

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The rail switching question is totally illogical. Why would a station master have control over the tracks but not to stop or slow down the train? Or to call the person who does?

But to answer the question, I would make the train head towards the track with one person on it because perhaps there is a chance that this person can somehow avoid being hit by the train. But the chances of five people successfully avoiding the train are most likely zero.  

Captain Skellett

Guest Comment

Future, present and past are very different when you talk about ethics. At least, they feel different even if the circumstances are the same. I don't think I could push someone off a bridge into a train, because it would make me feel more personally responsible for their death than I would for five other deaths. Not exactly ethics, that's more like guilt.

What about if you could kill someone today to save five lives tomorrow, would you do it? (Think like the movie Minority Report) Or, to use an oft-quoted example, would you go back in time and kill Hitler?

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Woah... neat idea...

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