May 10, 2016

Cornell – Oxford Study Provides Insights on Morality, Trust

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Imagine there are five railroad workers stuck on a track and a train is quickly approaching. You have the chance to save these five people, but you would have to push someone else in front of the train to stop it. Would you do it?

In a recent study co-authored by Prof. David Pizarro, psychology, researchers found that people can judge trustworthiness based on answers to a hypothetical moral dilemma like this one. The results of this study were published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General last month.

Researchers from Cornell and Oxford University asked over 2,400 participants if they would be willing to kill one innocent person to save five others. They then asked participants to play an economic game to evaluate trust. Participants were required to lend money to people who either answered yes or no to the moral dilemma question and then asked how likely they thought they were to get the money back.

Regardless of the participant’s answer to the moral dilemma, participants overwhelmingly answered that someone who was willing to kill someone to save five others would also be less likely to give them their money back.

“Even in these hypothetical dilemmas, people are more likely to trust somebody who refuses to do something for the greater good,” Pizarro said.

These findings indicate that participants found these people to be less trustworthy.

The study also revealed a unique exception. Individuals who said they would sacrifice one to save many were consistently deemed less trustworthy.

“However, if you report that you made a decision [to kill one person in order to save five] with great difficulty, then people are less mistrusting of you” Pizarro said.

Understanding why this is the case is a little trickier. Although the majority of people would refuse to push someone in front of a train, there are rational arguments that support both possible decisions in this hypothetical moral dilemma.

“However, there’s a good reason why we might not trust people who say okay to killing someone right away,” Pizarro said. “They might be lacking those emotions that make us good to each other.”

The significance of the study centers on understanding more fundamental aspects of society.

“The big question is, how do we determine that other people are trustworthy? Our whole lives are all about trusting other people,” Pizarro noted.

Many of daily actions are fundamentally based on trust. Driving on a public road implicitly requires trusting other drivers to obey traffic rules. Accepting a credit card or a check as payment relies on trust in other people to make those payments later.

“So much of human society exists because people have been willing to trust each other and cooperate on things,” Pizarro said.

Because of its integral role in shaping society, trust has become an interesting topic of study.

Whether it be figuring out who to start a business with or who to date, finding cues to determine if someone is trustworthy is critical to navigating our social world. People look for “signals that you are the kind of person who cares about fairness and loyalty, who has empathy” Pizarro said. This study reveals one of the multiple cues we use to make that judgment.

According to Pizarro, the study illustrates that we evaluate others not only on actions but on their judgments as well.

“Human beings are constantly evaluating others on this dimension of trustworthiness,” Pizarro said. “We’re pretty good at it and it actually has implications for how we treat other people.”

Moral judgment has been central to Pizarro’s research. “For me it’s just interesting to understand how the mind works and how we socially interact.” Pizarro said. On a larger scale, it taps into the mystery of how human cooperation arose.