A new study uses the famous trolley problem to show how our culture shapes our moral beliefs.
By Sigal Samuel
Finding the best ways to do good.
Who’s more likely to throw you in front of a runaway trolley in order to save a bunch of people’s lives — someone from America or someone from China?
That might sound like a bizarre question, but psychologists and philosophers are interested in it because it helps us get at an underlying question: To what extent does our cultural context shape our morality?
We now have a ton of new data on this, thanks to a cross-cultural study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By getting 70,000 participants in 42 countries to respond to sacrificial moral dilemmas — the largest study of this kind to date — an international team of psychologists was able to show how culture influences moral decision-making.
Participants were presented with multiple versions of a classic dilemma known as the trolley problem, which asks: Should I make the active choice to divert a runaway trolley so that it kills one person if, by doing so, I can save five people along a different track from getting killed?
The study found that participants from Eastern countries like China or Japan were less inclined to support sacrificing someone in trolley problems than participants from Western countries like the United States.
Naturally, the next question is: What’s driving this cross-cultural difference in moral preferences? Does it have to do with each country’s religiosity? Its emphasis on individualism? Its gross domestic product?
The authors suggest a different variable is doing most of the work here: relational mobility, or the ease with which people in a given society can develop new relationships. The study found that relational mobility was a strong predictor of the tendency to support sacrificing one person, even after controlling for religiosity, individualism, and GDP.
If you live in a society with high relational mobility, like the US, you’ve got lots of options for finding new friends, so it’s not such a big deal if your current friends ditch you. But if you live somewhere with low relational mobility, you have fewer chances to develop new friends, so you’re going to be extra careful to avoid alienating your current ones.
“People in low relational mobility societies may be less likely to express and even hold attitudes that send a negative social signal. Endorsing sacrifice in the trolley problem is just such an attitude,” the study says, adding that the pressure of living in these societies might make certain ideas “morally unthinkable.”
The study shows that our beliefs about what’s moral are, at least to some degree, products of our cultural context. But, intriguingly, the study also shows that there are some universals in human morality.
“This is something philosophers have disagreed on, with some saying ethics are universal and some saying it’s subjective,” co-author Edmond Awad of the University of Exeter told me. “It turns out there’s evidence to support both views.”
Using trolley problems to find out what all cultures agree on — and where they diverge
We often talk about the trolley problem as if it’s one thing, but there are actually multiple versions of the thought experiment. The researchers tested three versions — dubbed Switch, Loop, and Footbridge — which helped them to identify both cultural universals and variations in moral decisions.
In the Switch version, a trolley is about to kill five workers but can be redirected to a different track where it’ll kill only one worker.
In the Loop version, the trolley can be redirected to a side track that later rejoins the main track. On the side track, it will kill one worker whose body will stop the trolley before it can kill the five on the main track.
In the Footbridge version, a large man can be pushed in front of the trolley. He’ll die, but his body will stop the trolley from killing the five workers on the track.
It turns out that people across the board, regardless of their cultural context, give the same response when they’re asked to rank the moral acceptability of acting in each case. They say Switch is most acceptable, then Loop, then Footbridge.
That’s probably because in Switch, the death of the worker is an unfortunate side effect of the action that saves the five, whereas in Footbridge, the death of the large man is not a side effect but a means to an end — and it requires the use of personal force against him…