"Long before it's in the papers"
April 06, 2015


Women and men may answer moral dilemmas differently

April 6, 2015
Courtesy of the Society for Personality 
and Social Psychology
and World Science staff

If there were a time ma­chine, would it be right to kill Ad­olf Hit­ler when he was still a young art­ist to save mil­lions of lives? Should a po­lice of­fic­er tor­ture an al­leged bomb­er to find hid­den ex­plo­sives that could kill many peo­ple at a lo­cal cafe?

Men fac­ing such dilem­mas are typ­ic­ally more will­ing to ac­cept harm­ful ac­tions for the sa­ke of the great­er good than wom­en, a study con­cludes—so wom­en would be less likely than men to sup­port harm­ing the young Hit­ler or the bomb­ing sus­pect.

The dif­fer­ence is at­trib­ut­a­b to wom­en’s great­er emo­tion­al aver­sion to harm­ful ac­tions against in­di­vid­u­al­s—not a dif­fer­ence in how they ra­t­ionally eval­u­ate the out­comes, ac­cord­ing to the re­search, pub­lished April 3 in the jour­nal Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy Bul­le­tin

“Women are more likely to have a gut-level neg­a­tive re­ac­tion to caus­ing harm to an in­di­vid­ual, while men ex­pe­ri­ence less emo­tion­al re­sponses to do­ing har­m,” said lead re­search au­thor Re­bec­ca Fries­dorf. The find­ing runs against the com­mon ster­e­o­type that wom­en be­ing more emo­tion­al means they’re al­so less ra­t­ional, Fries­dorf said.

Fries­dorf, a grad­u­ate stu­dent in so­cial psy­chol­o­gy at Wil­frid Lau­ri­er Uni­vers­ity in Can­a­da, teamed up with oth­er re­search­ers for a re­a­nal­y­sis of da­ta from 6,100 peo­ple who had been sur­veyed about dilem­mas in­volv­ing mur­der, tor­ture, ly­ing, abor­tion, and an­i­mal re­search. 

The study ex­am­ined two op­pos­ing phil­o­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ples: “deon­tol­o­gy” and “u­til­i­tarian­ism.” The first says an ac­tion’s right­ness al­ways de­pends on its fit with a mor­al norm. For in­stance Im­man­u­el Kant, the 18th cen­tu­ry phi­los­o­pher, claimed it was al­ways wrong to lie, even if a mur­derer asked wheth­er his in­tend­ed vic­tim was in­side a house so he could kill him. Util­i­tar­ian­ism in­stead fa­vors what­ev­er is best for the great­est num­ber of peo­ple, so that the eth­i­cal val­ue of an ac­tion de­pends on the situa­t­ion. 

The re­search team found that wom­en were more likely than men to fol­low deon­to­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples, but found no ev­i­dence for gen­der dif­fer­ences in util­i­tar­ian rea­son­ing. This are in line with pre­vi­ous re­search show­ing that wom­en are more em­pa­thet­ic to the feel­ings of oth­er peo­ple, while gen­der dif­fer­ences in cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties tend to be small or non­ex­ist­ent, Fries­dorf said.

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If there were a time machine, would it be right to kill Adolf Hitler when he was still a young Austrian artist to save millions of lives? Should a police officer torture an alleged bomber to find hidden explosives that could kill many people at a local cafe? Men facing such dilemmas are typically more willing to accept harmful actions for the sake of the greater good than women, a study concludes—so women would be less likely than men to support harming the young Hitler or the bombing suspect. The difference is attributable to women’s greater emotional aversion to harmful actions against individuals—not a difference in how they rationally evaluate the outcomes, according to the research, published April 3 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “Women are more likely to have a gut-level negative reaction to causing harm to an individual, while men experience less emotional responses to doing harm,” said lead research author Rebecca Friesdorf. The finding runs against the common stereotype that women being more emotional means they’re also less rational, Friesdorf said. Friesdorf, a graduate student in social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, teamed up with other researchers for a reanalysis of data from 6,100 people who had been surveyed about dilemmas involving murder, torture, lying, abortion, and animal research. The study examined two opposing philosophical principles: “deontology” and “utilitarianism.” The first said an action’s rightness always depends on its fit with a moral norm. For instance Immanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher, claimed it was always wrong to lie, even if a murderer asked whether his intended victim was inside a house so he could kill him. Utilitarianism instead favors whatever is best for the greatest number of people, so that the ethical value of an action depends on the situation. The research team found that women were more likely than men to follow “deontological” principles, but found no evidence for gender differences in utilitarian reasoning. This are in line with previous research showing that women are more empathetic to the feelings of other people, while gender differences in cognitive abilities tend to be small or nonexistent, Friesdorf said.