by Steven Novella NeuroLogica Oct 1, 2018
How people make ethical decisions is a very interesting line of psychological research. Perhaps the most well-known study is the famous trolley experiment. It is a theoretical question, if you are at the controls of a switch that can change tracks, and a trolley is out of control and heading toward five people that it will surely kill, would you switch the trolley onto another track that only has one person on it? Most people say that they will – they will sacrifice that one person in order to save five.
However, if you are standing next to the track and a very large person is in front of you, would you push them onto the tracks in order to stop the train and save five people (just go with the premise for the sake of the ethical conundrum). Most people will say no. In scenario 1 they will sacrifice one person to save five, in scenario 2 they will not. Why?
Conventional wisdom is that people are more willing to passively allow someone to die rather than actively kill them. The outcome matters less than the mechanism – emotionally, at least.
The deeper issue here, beyond this one ethical calculation, is how we make ethical calculations generally. This mainly comes down to conflict resolution – when competing motivations are moving us toward different behaviors, how do we resolve the conflict? We make such ethical decisions on two levels, intuitive and analytical (the two basic modes of thought that have been elucidated in other contexts as well).
In other words, we base our decisions partly on how the different behaviors make us feel, and partly on an analytical calculation based on ethical philosophy. The trolley experiment is iconic because these two modes of thought come to opposite conclusions.
The still deeper question is – what factors determine to what extent we use intuitive vs analytical thinking in making ethical decisions? This is a complex question without a simple answer. It is likely very context dependent, and also depends greatly on the individual. In general, however, the more one has thought about ethical philosophy (or perhaps formally studied it) the more that analytical tool will be available and feel comfortable, and the more confident we might be in overriding our feelings.
Throwing another wrench into this whole thing is cognitive dissonance theory – when we do have conflicting impulses, that causes emotional pain. We then seek to resolve that discomfort, mostly through rationalization.
In other words – the easiest or most common behavior when people are confronted with an ethical dilemma is to make whichever choice feels better, then rationalize why that choice was the best, or was unavoidable, in order to minimize any cognitive dissonance. We make an intuitive choice, then use analytical thought to rationalize this choice.
Truthfulness vs Loyalty
With all of that in mind, a recent study looked at how willing people were to cheat during a psychological experiment. The researchers looked at the effect of loyalty on willingness to cheat. They actually found two effects.
The study involved breaking subjects up into groups, and then giving them puzzles to solve. The first effect is that when people were asked to pledge loyalty to their group, or were measured to have more loyalty, they cheated less on the puzzles. Cheating was assessed by either looking at the notes that subjects used, or by giving them impossible puzzles, so anyone claiming to have solved it must have been cheating (although I guess they could have been honestly mistaken).
The author chalked up this effect to “greater ethical salience” – pledging loyalty raised the stakes, so people were on their best behavior. Perhaps this motivated them to engage more in analytical than intuitive behavior, or it altered the emotional intuitive calculation.
The second effect occurred when they introduced an element of competition – saying that groups would be rewarded based on how they did compared to other groups. This has a “moderating” effect on the decrease in cheating. When groups were in competition, those with more loyalty cheated more then those with less or not primed with pledged of loyalty.
As always, this is one study, and psychological studies like this are so rife with potential confounding factors that it is difficult to make any strong conclusions. Multiple studies are always needed to triangulate to the best interpretation. However, the straightforward interpretation is that the combination of loyalty and competition makes people more willing to cheat. Loyalty alone makes them less willing to cheat.
The mainstream reporting of this study focuses on the second effect alone, but this is not what the study showed. Loyalty itself is fine. It is competition that brings out the dark side of loyalty to one’s group.
Mainstream reporting also when to the obvious implication – political. Given our current political climate, this is an obvious analogy to make. In politics, there is competition, and this competition is group based, very binary, and with high stakes. Group identity can be very strong. The study does suggest this is all a recipe for more cheating.
For me, the deeper lessons are always the more interesting ones. That people are more willing to cheat to favor their group when loyalty to that group is high and competition is high, makes perfect sense. What is perhaps more interesting is people’s behavior is so easy to manipulate. Cheating in the high loyalty/ high competition group was 60%. Cheating in the high loyalty/ low competition group was 15-20%. This is a robust effect.
That people are so easy to manipulate (which is pretty much the entire basis of psychological research) implies we are making decisions on an intuitive and emotional level. Our decisions are a subconscious algorithm – alter the inputs, and you get different outputs.
All this also suggests there are two ways to alter people’s behavior, again breaking down to the intuitive vs analytical approaches. The intuitive approach is to alter the environmental cues to socially and psychologically manipulate people into preferred choices. If you want to reduce cheating, then emphasize loyalty and deemphasize competition.
The other way is to get people to use analytical decision-making more. Give people a better appreciation for ethical philosophy and encourage them to engage in ethical reasoning to resolve conflicts and determine behavior, rather than follow their feelings. Of course, the second route is much harder. It is also much less effective statistically. That is a very strong signal in the psychological literature – it is more effective to manipulate people into preferred behavior rather than to reason with them.
However, this greater effectiveness for intuitive rather than analytical interventions may be due to the artificially short timeline of studies. It could be an artifact of biasing studies toward the quicker intervention. Analytical approaches take more time, and we should invest that time. I would rather have an ethically educated and sophisticated population that does the right thing because they understand the ethical calculation and full implications, rather than to constantly have to manipulate people for short term effects. (And of course you can do both.)
(Editor’s note: Who you got? Donald Trump or James Comey?
I think they are both full of it.)