Moral Dilemmas in the Digital Age

Fagjun | Published 2017-05-26 21:35

Researchers have determined how smartphones and PCs impact our judgment when dealing with moral dilemmas. Smartphone users are more likely to be more rational than PC users when making moral decisions. PC users, meanwhile, were more likely to be intuitive and more likely to conform to rules and norms.

Technology impacts our lives in different ways and different situations. We're often in situations wherein we make decisions in digital form. Some of technology's effects on our behavior can be obvious and easily observable, while others are somewhat more subtle. This new study is one of the first studies to explore how a digital context—in this case, smartphones and PCs—can influence moral decisions.

The Lever and the Fat Man

Which would you choose?
[Photo by Will Langenberg]

Researchers gathered 1,010 participants for the study and presented them with a moral dilemma. Moral dilemmas are situations in which people have to make a choice between two or more actions based on moral grounds.

Moral decisions can be either deontological or utilitarian. Deontological responses are intuitive and conforms to rules and laws. Utilitarian responses, meanwhile, are the result of a rational evaluation of potential consequences.

For this study, the researchers chose to present participants with the “Trolley Problem”. In this moral dilemma, there is a trolley quickly headed straight towards five people who had been tied down to the tracks. The participants envisioned that they are standing next to a lever that can redirect the trolley to another set of tracks and thus save the five people. However, the other set of tracks has one person tied down to it. Participants can either choose to do nothing and let five people get run over, or they can pull the lever and save five people while letting one person die.

This moral dilemma has another version that includes a fat man. A participant and a fat man are standing on a footbridge overlooking the tracks. The participant can choose to push the fat man off the footbridge to stop the trolley and save the five people below. In these two versions, the participants had to choose between sparing five lives by sacrificing one, or doing nothing and letting five people die.

The Digital Context of Moral Dilemmas

In the lever scenario, 80.9% of smartphone users chose to pull the lever and let one person die to save five. 76.9% of PC users made the same decision. In the fat man scenario, 33.5% of smartphone users opted to push the fat man off the foortbridge. 22.3% of PC users opted to do the same. Thus, participants tended to be more utilitarian when they dealt with moral dilemmas in the context of smartphones.

Another experiment introduced a time limit to the participants' decision-making. The researchers found that the results tended to skew towards utilitarianism as well.

Thus, when people view highly emotional moral dilemmas on smartphones, they tended to respond rationally and unemotionally. Researchers say that this may be because people associate smartphones with time pressure and psychological distancing. These new digital contexts of moral decision-making can impact our lives in ways that we definitely need to give more thought to.

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