Friday, September 21, 2012

A White Lab Coat Is Not An Adequate Symbol of Authority

The trolley problem is one used by psychologists to study ethical decision making. Experimental subjects are given a scenario in which a trolley is moving down its tracks and continuing it will run over five people and kill them all. The subject is given one of two alternatives:

  1. The subject can switch the trolley onto a different track, but if he does so it will kill someone on that track.
  2. The subject is on a bridge over the track with a fat person, and pushing that person off the bridge in front of the trolley will kill the falling person but save the five down the tracks.

Obviously the two situations have in common that one person is killed or five people are killed. Most people respond in the first alternative that they would switch the trolley onto the new track. Most people respond in the second alternative that they would not push someone off the bridge to a certain death even to save five other people. The theory is that in the first case, the part of the brain that makes logical analysis of ethical issues dominates the decision making, but in the second case, it is the part of the brain that makes instinctive ethical decisions that dominates. (A continuing theme of this blog is that we think with our brains, not our minds.)

A new fillip to the research suggests that people who think in words tend more often to use the engine for making logical ethical decisions, and those who think in pictures more often use the engine for making instinctive ethical decisions.

I Reject the Trolley Problem!

There are always more than two alternatives in a situation. If you are fortunate enough to be asked to be a subject in a trolley problem experiment of the second kind, I suggest you do one of the following:
  • Imagine that you are an 80 year old, humanitarian hermit with terminal cancer and the other person on the bridge is a 30 year old widow who is the sole support of her widowed invalid mother and her five orphaned children. Then it will be easy to imagine throwing yourself off the bridge to stop the trolley and save those five people.
  • Imaging that the kid in the white lab coat is on the bridge with you. Tell her its her responsibility and you are washing your hands of the whole problem. If she objects, tell her its your imagination and her white coat doesn't give her any right to control your mind.*
Let me know what happens in a comment on this blog post. When enough comments have accumulated, we can write a paper ourselves on the results and publish it in Psychology Today.

* Note: See the Milgram Experiment

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just came across this post in an unrelated internet search. I very much appreciate your ethical and compassionate response to the false scarcity of this thought problem. I'm a longtime fat activist. I notice that it's a fat person who's going to be pushed off the bridge to stop the train and I have to wonder if our lives aren't considered more expendable and less valuable. Even if it were a one-to-one situation of a fat person being killed to save one thin person's life. -- Marilyn Wann, FAT!SO?