Simon Laham's blog.
Environments shape morality
Many moral dilemmas pit conflicting moral rules against one another. This is no more striking than in that set of problems that moral philosophers and psychologists typically study: trolley dilemmas.
Here is one, oft-studied version, known as the footbridge dilemma:
You are standing on a footbridge crossing a railroad track. While you are standing next to a stranger, suddenly a runaway trolley comes hurtling down the railroad track. Further down the railroad track five people are working and they cannot possibly leave the railroad track in time. If the trolley proceeds on its present course it will crash into the five railroad workers and they will be killed in a fatal accident. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the bridge and into the path of the trolley. The body of this person will break the speed of the trolley as a result of this the trolley will stop and the five persons will survive. The person thrown from the footbridge will certainly die.
Is it morally permissible to push the stranger off the footbridge?
One prominent account of the way such dilemmas are resolved suggests that people are torn between the rules Do not kill and Save lives, and that they must overcome this conflict in order to make a response. This account suggests that emotional processes drive the Do not kill response, whereas rational, reasoning processes drive the Save lives response.
However, according to recent research, the responses people make to such dilemmas may also be shaped by the environments in which they find themselves. Social psychologists have long known that the environment shapes behaviour. Environmental cues prime concepts in the minds of individuals and these primed constructs influence judgments and behaviour. Nevertheless, the impact of environmental cues has received scant attention in moral psychology (although see here).
To address this lack, Ron Broeders and colleagues devised a series of clever studies in which participants were exposed to various environmental cues designed to prime different moral rules in peoples’ minds.
In one of three studies, Broeders had participants solve a series of puzzles before responding to a moral dilemma. The puzzles required participants to form shapes out of scrambled-up puzzles pieces. For some participants, the solution-shapes were symbols that communicated Save lives (e.g., the red cross of The Red Cross, a life buoy), while for others, the solution-shapes were more indicative of the rule Do not kill (e.g., the peace sign, an image of the Ten Commandments). When participants were later asked to respond to the footbridge dilemma, those primed with Save lives were more likely to judge pushing the stranger off the footbridge acceptable than were those primed with Do not kill. Exposure to environmental cues that put the rule Save lives in the forefront of people’s minds actually increased the likelihood of utilitarian responses.
Startlingly, this effect also holds when people aren’t consciously aware of the primes. In another study, Broeders subliminally primed participants with these symbols and the effect emerged again.
Although the effect appears robust enough, it only seems to work for dilemmas in which there is some inherent cognitive conflict or uncertainty about the response. For the trolley dilemma, a variant of the footbridge that triggers less uncertainty, accessible moral rules did not influence results. According to Broeders and colleagues, such “lack of ambiguity and absence of feelings of uncertainty in trolley dilemmas [means] people are less easily influenced by extraneous information in the trolley situation.”
Traditionally, reasoning or emotion have been considered the primary drivers of moral judgment. It seems we have a new contender: environmental cues.