Article

Simulating Murder: The Aversion to Harmful Action

Department of Psychology, Harvard University, USA.
Emotion (Impact Factor: 3.88). 09/2011; 12(1):2-7. DOI: 10.1037/a0025071
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Diverse lines of evidence point to a basic human aversion to physically harming others. First, we demonstrate that unwillingness to endorse harm in a moral dilemma is predicted by individual differences in aversive reactivity, as indexed by peripheral vasoconstriction. Next, we tested the specific factors that elicit the aversive response to harm. Participants performed actions such as discharging a fake gun into the face of the experimenter, fully informed that the actions were pretend and harmless. These simulated harmful actions increased peripheral vasoconstriction significantly more than did witnessing pretend harmful actions or to performing metabolically matched nonharmful actions. This suggests that the aversion to harmful actions extends beyond empathic concern for victim harm. Together, these studies demonstrate a link between the body and moral decision-making processes.

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    • "This ERP component was interpreted as reflecting an immediate emotional reaction during the early stages of decision-making. Such emotional response has been hypothesized to be triggered by harm used as a means to an end and enhanced by direct physical engagement (Cushman, Gray, Gaffey, & Mendes, 2012; Cushman & Greene, 2012; Greene et al., 2009). In particular, in the Footbridge dilemma the man on the bridge is intentionally killed to stop the trolley and thus save the five workmen, whereas in the Trolley dilemma the death of the workman on the track is a foreseen but unintended consequence of diverting the trolley to save the five. "
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    • "Although 'utilitarian' judgment in sacrificial dilemmas is widely assumed to reflect a utilitarian concern with the greater good, there is recent evidence, reviewed above, that it is rather driven by reduced aversion to harming (Crockett et al., 2010; Cushman et al., 2012) and associated with antisocial traits (Bartels & Pizarro, 2011; Glenn et al., 2010; Koenigs et al., 2012; Wiech et al., 2013) and reduced empathy (Choe & Min, 2011; Crockett et al., 2010). One aim of Study 1, therefore, was to replicate this reported association and to disentangle the respective roles of antisocial tendencies and reduced empathic concern in 'utilitarian' judgment. "
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    • "Although 'utilitarian' judgment in sacrificial dilemmas is widely assumed to reflect a utilitarian concern with the greater good, there is recent evidence, reviewed above, that it is rather driven by reduced aversion to harming (Crockett et al., 2010; Cushman et al., 2012) and associated with antisocial traits (Bartels & Pizarro, 2011; Glenn et al., 2010; Koenigs et al., 2012; Wiech et al., 2013) and reduced empathy (Choe & Min, 2011; Crockett et al., 2010). One aim of Study 1, therefore, was to replicate this reported association and to disentangle the respective roles of antisocial tendencies and reduced empathic concern in 'utilitarian' judgment. "
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    ABSTRACT: A growing body of research has focused on so-called ‘utilitarian’ judgments in moral dilemmas in which participants have to choose whether to sacrifice one person in order to save the lives of a greater number. However, the relation between such ‘utilitarian’ judgments and genuine utilitarian impartial concern for the greater good remains unclear. Across four studies, we investigated the relationship between ‘utilitarian’ judgment in such sacrificial dilemmas and a range of traits, attitudes, judgments and behaviors that either reflect or reject an impartial concern for the greater good of all. In Study 1, we found that rates of ‘utilitarian’ judgment were associated with a broadly immoral outlook concerning clear ethical transgressions in a business context, as well as with sub-clinical psychopathy. In Study 2, we found that ‘utilitarian’ judgment was associated with greater endorsement of rational egoism, less donation of money to a charity, and less identification with the whole of humanity, a core feature of classical utilitarianism. In Studies 3 and 4, we found no association between ‘utilitarian’ judgments in sacrificial dilemmas and characteristic utilitarian judgments relating to assistance to distant people in need, self-sacrifice and impartiality, even when the utilitarian justification for these judgments was made explicit and unequivocal. This lack of association remained even when we controlled for the antisocial element in ‘utilitarian’ judgment. Taken together, these results suggest that there is very little relation between sacrificial judgments in the hypothetical dilemmas that dominate current research, and a genuine utilitarian approach to ethics.
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