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Moral Decision-making as Compared to Economic and Shopping Contexts. Gender Effects and Utilitarianism

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How do people make decisions? Previous psychological research consistently shed light on the fact that decisions are not the result of a pure rational reasoning, and that emotions can assume a crucial role. This is particularly true in the case of moral decision-making, which requires a complex integration of affective and cognitive processes. One question that is still open to debate concern the individual factors that can affect moral decisions. Gender has been consistently identified as a possible variable of interest for the adoption of different strategic behaviors, with men using more rational processes and women more deontological principles. In the present study we aimed at exploring the presence of gender differences in different decision-making scenarios. Results showed that the moral scenario led to a similar acceptance rate in both genders, while economic and shopping offers were more likely to be accepted by men. Also, women were more inclined to refuse unfair offers, which included a higher personal benefit at the expense of the opponent, even if this meant a total loss for both parties. Finally, correlational analyses revealed a different relation between risk propensity and decision-making in men and women in different scenarios.
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RIVISTA INTERNAZIONALE DI FILOSOFIA E PSICOLOGIA
DOI: 10.4453/rifp.2019.0004
ISSN 2039-4667; E-ISSN 2239-2629
Vol. 10 (2019), n. 1, pp. 49-64
Moral Decision-making as Compared to Economic and
Shopping Contexts. Gender Effects and Utilitarianism
Claudio Lucchiari,(α) Francesca Meroni(α) & Maria Elide Vanutelli(α)
Ricevuto: 29 novembre 2018; accettato: 29 marzo 2019
Abstract How do people make decisions? Previous psychological research consistently shed light on the fact
that decisions are not the result of a pure rational reasoning, and that emotions can assume a crucial role. This
is particularly true in the case of moral decision-making, which requires a complex integration of affective and
cognitive processes. One question that is still open to debate concern the individual factors that can affect mor-
al decisions. Gender has been consistently identified as a possible variable of interest for the adoption of differ-
ent strategic behaviors, with men using more rational processes and women more deontological principles. In
the present study we aimed at exploring the presence of gender differences in different decision-making scenar-
ios. Results showed that the moral scenario led to a similar acceptance rate in both genders, while economic and
shopping offers were more likely to be accepted by men. Also, women were more inclined to refuse unfair of-
fers, which included a higher personal benefit at the expense of the opponent, even if this meant a total loss for
both parties. Finally, correlational analyses revealed a different relation between risk propensity and decision-
making in men and women in different scenarios.
KEYWORDS: Decision-making; Utilitarianism; Altruism; Moral Decision-making; Economic Decision-making
Riassunto Decisioni morali, economiche e d’acquisto a confronto. Effetti di genere e utilitarismo Come pren-
diamo le decisioni? La letteratura psicologica disponibile ha chiarito in ampia misura come le decisioni non sia-
no il risultato di un ragionamento puramente razionale e che le emozioni possono assumere un ruolo cruciale.
Questo è particolarmente vero nel caso delle decisioni morali, che richiedono una complessa integrazione tra
processi affettivi e cognitivi. Una questione ancora aperta riguarda i fattori individuali che possono incidere
sulle decisioni morali. Il genere è stato identificato come una possibile variabile da considerare rispetto
all’adozione di comportamenti strategici differenti, in cui gli uomini sembrano più inclini a far uso di processi
razionali e le donne a considerare principi deontologici. In questo lavoro abbiamo provato a esplorare la pre-
senza di differenze di genere in diversi contesti decisionali. I risultati hanno mostrano come in ambito morale
entrambi i generi siano portati ad accettare opzioni simili, mentre offerte economiche e commerciali sono ac-
cettate in misura maggiore dagli uomini. Le donne sarebbero più inclini a rifiutare offerte inique che compren-
dono benefici personali maggiori a discapito di una controparte, anche se questo implica una perdita totale da
ambo le parti. Infine, le analisi correlazionali hanno mostrato una diversa relazione tra propensione al rischio e
processi decisionali tra uomini e donne in contesti diversi.
PAROLE CHIAVE: Processi decisionali; Utilitarismo; Altruismo; Processi decisionali morali; Processi decisionali
economici
RICERCHE
(α)Dipartimento di Filosofia, Università degli Studi di Milano, via Festa del Perdono, 7- 20122 Milano (I)
E-mail: claudio.lucchiari@unimi.it; francesca.meroni5@studenti.unimi.it; maria.vanutelli@unimi.it()
Creative Commons - Attribuzione - 4.0 Internazionale
Lucchiari, Meroni & Vanutelli
50
How do people make decisions? How
do they sift through the information
without drowning into a sea of alter-
natives and which are the factors that
lead them into a certain direction?
1
THE THEORY OF DECISIONS OWES its devel-
opment to the members of different disci-
plines such as philosophers, mathematicians,
psychologists, sociologist, economists, etc.
Each of those disciplines has emphasized a
special aspect of decision-making. As well-
known, decision theories are usually catego-
rized into descriptive
2
and normative
3
ones.
The formers are based on empirical observa-
tions and on experimental studies about
choice behaviors, whereas the latter assumes
that humans should behave as rational deci-
sion-makers, who follow well-defined prefer-
ences according to certain axioms.
4
The process underlying rational choices
requires that the subject would be able to de-
termine a set of actions, to identify a rela-
tionship that links actions to their conse-
quences, to order all possible consequences
and to choose the best action. Nevertheless,
decisions cannot be considered only as the
result of a pure rational reasoning. In fact,
emotions assume a crucial role in this process
and some decisions cannot be separated from
their emotional component.
This is what happens in moral decisions
and that is the reason why the study of moral
choices represents a powerful tool to investi-
gate the relationship between decision-
making and emotions.
Moral decision-making
Moral judgments have a crucial role in so-
cial behavior. People constantly assess their
own and other's behavior and try to adjust
their actions into what is considered to be
“morally right”. Indeed, moral decision-
making could be described as the complex
integration of affective and cognitive pro-
cesses.
5
It includes decisions that are general-
ly accepted and norms of behavior that are
culturally shaped.
6
Furthermore, those deci-
sions with possible harmful effects over
someone else have also socially negative out-
comes that could even lead to legal conse-
quences.
Over the years, philosophers have been
thinking about the origins of morality and
about which are the determinant factors of
morality, whereas psychologists have mostly
focused on the inspection of the mental pro-
cesses underlying the complexity of moral
behavior. In particular, neuroscientific re-
search has mainly investigated the presence
of specific neural networks devoted to moral
reasoning. In fact, thanks to the development
of neurocognitive sciences, the interrogative
about how we make moral choices has ex-
panded to the study of which neurobiological
correlates and which brain mechanisms un-
derlie moral behavior.
7
For example, though the study of neuro-
transmitters and hormones specifically in-
volved in moral decision-making have not
found solid evidence yet, it has been proven
that oxytocin influences cognitive and emo-
tional processes which are relevant for moral
judgment, and this fact may also explain the
partial heritability of moral patterns.
8
Indeed,
it is rather reasonable to hypothesize that ge-
netic variations on oxytocin pathway con-
tribute to individual differences in moral
judgments.
9
Other important non-invasive in-vivo
studies on humans about the morphological
and functional brain architecture have been
conducted.
10
For example, it has been discov-
ered that dopamine affects several aspects of
social behavior that are essential for moral
choices such as motivation, reward, reinforc-
ing learning, altruism, and empathy.
11
For ex-
ample, a study by Pellegrini and colleagues,
12
explored the relationship between genotype
and the attitudes toward moral dilemmas. By
genotyping five genetic variants of the do-
paminergic pathway in 200 participants, they
found a significant gender effect over moral
acceptability.
Moral Decision-making as Compared to Economic and Shopping Contexts
In detail, results revealed that those geno-
type combinations improving dopaminergic
signalling increased moral acceptability in
women, in a way to make their responses more
similar to those given by men. The authors in-
terpreted this result by hypothesizing that an
increase in dopamine availability could rein-
force the cognitive strategies at the expense of
the emotional processing usually adopted by
women during decision-making, thus favoring
a more rationally-driven decision process.
For what concerns risk-taking in economic
decision-making, several studies have shown
that the dopaminergic projection from the
ventral tegmental area to the ventral striatum
is particularly important in reward processing
showing the relevance of the dopaminergic
pathway in this frame.
13
However, contrasting
results are reported in the literature about the
role of dopamine receptors genotypes in eco-
nomic decision-making.
14
For example, Dreber
and colleagues found that a genetic variation
of a dopaminergic receptor was associated
with higher risk-taking propensity only in the
men sample.
15
A few brain-imaging studies have investi-
gated the neural brain activity in subjects,
who were asked to make moral choices refer-
ring to various scenarios
16
focusing on the re-
lationship between emotional processing and
moral judgments.
17
For example, Greene and
colleagues demonstrated that both cognitive
and emotional neuro-functional mechanisms
are involved in decision-making processes,
sometimes even with mutually competitive
roles.
18
In fact, in their experiment, they found
that solving difficult personal moral dilemmas
with personal moral violations triggered spe-
cific brain areas typically recruited during ab-
stract reasoning and cognitive control, such as
the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)
and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). In
attempting to explain the role of cognitive and
emotional mechanisms in moral judgment,
the authors suggested a dual-process theory.
They described two different and com-
peting neurological systems: a slow and con-
scious cognitive system and a fast and uncon-
scious affective system.
19
The former in-
volves a conscious and rational appraisal of
facts that produces a utilitarian response. For
this reason, the system is supposed to be ac-
tive when personal and emotional involve-
ment is reduced. On the other hand, the lat-
ter engages affective responses and is the re-
sult of being emotionally involved in the sit-
uation. In this case, responses tend to be non-
utilitarian.
Utilitarian choices and altruism
The term utilitarian judgment indicates a
deliberative thinking oriented at achieving the
greatest utility. The decision is taken follow-
ing a calculation that requires to assign values
to the benefits and harms resulting from an
action and to compare them with the benefits
and harms that might result from other ac-
tions. Conversely, non-utilitarian decision-
making involves intuitive and not rational
thinking. For example, when responding to
moral dilemmas, participants have to choose
whether to sacrifice one person in order to
save the lives of a greater number.
According to the definition above, and
following a utilitarian reasoning, one might
decide that breaking the fundamental moral
principle “do not deliberately harm some-
one” could be the best option in order to in-
crease the utility for the greatest number of
people.
20
Then, it seems evident that utilitar-
ianism is anyhow connected to altruism since
it considers the benefits for the whole con-
text and not just within an individual frame.
However, it is mostly related to the so-called
effective or “optimal altruism”, a definition
referring to a rational use of evidence and
reasoning to define the best way to help oth-
ers.
21
Thus, to sum up, we can follow an intu-
itive reasoning leading to traditional altruism
(or charity), or a rational reasoning.
This can lead to a utilitarian choice,
which is moved by external incentives, or to
an optimal altruistic (or endogenous) deci-
sion, which is moved by internal incentives.
The effects related to optimal altruism last
Lucchiari, Meroni & Vanutelli
52
longer than the effects of utilitarian choices.
In fact, optimal altruistic behaviors can be sus-
tained indefinitely by the self, while utilitarian
behaviors can only be sustained by something
outside the self. The external incentives, such
as monetary rewards, in fact, decay more rap-
idly than internal incentives. Thus, optimal
altruism needs internal motivation.
22
When facing a moral dilemma, people
show to be utilitarian when facing an emo-
tionally non-salient decision, or in the so-
called “impersonal moral dilemma. Con-
versely, when choice involves, for example,
inflicting a direct harm to one person in order
to save other people’s lives (which is exactly
what is required to do in the so-called “per-
sonal” moral dilemmas), many people decide
not to do any action or at least to act in a con-
dition of high emotional conflict.
23
But what
impersonal and personal actually mean?
The prototypical example of an impersonal
moral dilemma is the trolley dilemma.
24
The
scenario involves a runaway trolley that is going
to hit five people who will be killed if it pro-
ceeds on its current way. The only possibility to
save them is to pull a switch that will deviate
the trolley towards another railway, where it
will kill only one person, instead of five. In this
condition, people generally say “Yes, I would
pull the lever”.
25
On the other hand, most peo-
ple say no to the footbridge dilemma.
26
The
scenario is the same as in the previous example,
but to deviate the trolley the subject is asked
not to switch the lever, but to push an over-
weight stranger from a footbridge standing the
tracks, towards the oncoming trolley to stop it
and save the five people.
The trolley dilemma, unlike the foot-
bridge dilemma, is defined as “impersonal”
since it is more “editing” rather than “author-
ing” in first person. From a philosophical
perspective, a possible explanation of such
choices from the subjects could be that per-
sonal dilemmas involve a violation of Kant’s
practical imperative, namely that humans
must never be used as a mere means for
someone else’s purpose, but only as a target.
As said above, personal moral judgments
are associated with the recruitment of the af-
fective system, whereas impersonal conflicts
are more related to the cognitive system. In
order to find scientific basis of this assump-
tion, Greene and colleagues used the fMRI
technique and found that when dealing with
personal dilemma a significant activation in-
volving emotional areas emerged, as com-
pared to impersonal scenarios.
27
Several sources of evidence came out in
literature to support the dual-process hy-
pothesis. Some studies demonstrated that
participants’ willingness to endorse utilitari-
an actions that require personally harming an
innocent can be affected by variables that in-
fluence brain functioning.
28
For example, the
role of serotonin appeared to be linked to
utilitarian outcomes by enhancing the aver-
sive emotional response to causing others’
harm.
29
Some other studies focused on the
role of controlled cognition, meant as the ca-
pability of deliberately sizing up about some-
thing. In some of them, imaging results re-
vealed that the behavioral outcomes in terms
of frequency and reaction times were modu-
lated by specific networks related to con-
trolled cognition for utilitarian choices,
30
for
time pressure and for cognitive load.
31
Gender differences in decision-making
The psychological groundwork of moral
psychology lies in Piaget and Kohlberg’s the-
ories. In his theory, Piaget
32
assumed that
moral stages are universal, and their devel-
opment is invariable. Later, in addition to
these assumptions, Kohlberg
33
asserted that
morality is universal, equal for men and
women and for all cultures. This idea has
nevertheless been repeatedly questioned.
The role of factors such as gender, educa-
tion, and religion opens the more general
question: “is morality innate or is something
people learn?”.
34
Thus, one of the major fac-
tors considered in evaluating moral reason-
ing and behavior is gender.
Currently, it is well-known that men and
women react differently to emotions, with
Moral Decision-making as Compared to Economic and Shopping Contexts
women being more accurate in processing
and labeling, for example, emotional faces.
35
Similarly, Thayer and Johnson
36
found fe-
males as being more accurate in recognizing
facial expression compared to men. Such dif-
ferences have also been related to neuro-
anatomical differences in brain networks de-
volved to affective processing, considering,
for example, the wider grey-matter volume in
specific parts of the limbic system.
37
Thus,
considering the crucial role of the emotional
involvement in decision-making, it could be
of great interest to explore also gender differ-
ences. In fact, previous research already
demonstrated the influence of such emotion-
al “female advantage” over other cognitive
processes.
38
For example, Canli and col-
leagues
39
revealed a better memory perfor-
mance for highly emotional events in women
than men, while Burton and colleagues
40
demonstrated that the affective content had
a more negative effect on memory in female
participants, compared to males.
Previous research investigating gender
differences in moral reasoning has been lim-
ited primarily to behavioral techniques such
as coding verbal responses to hypothetical
moral dilemmas.
41
In particular, research on
moral decision-making is now mainly con-
sidering how exactly gender differences are
manifested in moral judgment. It is a com-
mon belief that women are more often in-
clined to sentimentalism, to intuition, and to
emotions than men. This line of research is
usually traced back to Kohlberg’s six-stage
theory of moral reasoning and Gilligan’s op-
posing work,
42
which criticized Kohlberg’s
theory as being biased in favor of men. As al-
ready discussed by Capraro and Sippel,
43
in
his theory Kohlberg asserted that the moral
development, and more precisely the devel-
opment of one’s explanations of one’s moral
actions, occurs on six stages: every new stage
that an individual achieves increases his own
capabilities to respond to moral dilemmas.
According to Gilligan, Kohlberg stated
that women frequently get stuck at the third
level of this development, defined as post-
conventional morality, where individual
judgment is based on self-chosen principles,
and moral reasoning is based on individual
rights and justice. Conversely, men more of-
ten move forward to the abstract principles
of morality. While men solve moral dilem-
mas involving rational reasoning, respecting
law and order, women seem to be mostly
driven by emotions, empathy and care for
others. This led Gilligan to define two diver-
gent modes of moral reasoning: an ethic of
care and an ethic of justice. Studies led by
Aldrich and Kage
44
and Björklund
45
seem to
confirm the existence of these differences.
The first is thought to be more based on uni-
versal principles and rules, while the second
involves concepts like involvement, relations
and the role of others. The role of gender has
thus been discussed in terms of “justice-care”
dichotomy.
Moreover, Bussey and Maughan
46
showed
a significant difference in the evaluation of
gender-specified moral agents by men but
not by women. On the other hand, Garwood
and colleagues
47
found no gender effects at
all. The reasons underlying these effects can
be found by considering a social-evolutionary
perspective.
In fact, as suggested by Rand and col-
leagues,
48
social roles can be significant in
this case. Women are expected to adopt more
collective and altruistic behaviors, while men
are supposed to be more assertive and inde-
pendent.
49
According to these stereotypes,
previous research found that when women
behave contrarily to these ideas and are,
then, perceived as insufficiently kind, gener-
ous, communal, they are liked less in general,
but they are also less welcomed in the work-
place.
50
So, women are more expected to be-
have altruistically.
51
In second instance, these
expectations actually lead women to habitu-
ate to being altruistic and to behave in a less
utilitarian way.
More recently, some neuroscientific stud-
ies tried to shed light on gender-related dif-
ferences in neural networks recruited by
moral decision-making. Since behavior can
Lucchiari, Meroni & Vanutelli
54
be considered as the result of all neural activ-
ity, neuroimaging could be used to assess
whether men and women show differences in
brain region activation in moral reasoning
and if utilitarian choices show specific neural
patterns.
52
Indeed, functional neuroimaging
studies have identified a consistent set of
brain regions involved in processing different
types of moral stimuli including moral di-
lemmas, statements, and pictures.
53
More recent studies showed that men
override intuitive moral options in highly
emotional and difficult moral dilemmas
more often than what women do.
54
This indi-
cates that men are more willing to deal with
rather pragmatically moral trade-offs despite
the risk of harm for others.
On the other hand, women seem to be
more empathetic and to care for others at
risk. Youssef and colleagues
55
demonstrated
that, during stressful situations, females tend
to make less utilitarian moral decisions than
males. Scheele and colleagues
56
reported be-
havioral data supporting the different impact
of oxytocin on self-processing in women and
men. They found out that changing the
amount of this hormone led male subjects to
more strongly endorse self-benefit outcomes
in moral dilemmas, but did not influence de-
cision-making in ones without a self-benefit
outcome or involving non-moral contexts. By
contrast, in women, oxytocin led the behav-
ior toward other-regarding preferences, with
self-benefit dilemmas being less endorsed
and the reaction time difference between ac-
cepted and rejected self-benefit dilemmas be-
ing increased.
Interestingly, in a recent meta-analysis,
Armstrong and colleagues
57
discussed the
gender effects related to the use of deonto-
logical principles, which derive from moral
rules and utilitarian principles that maximize
overall outcomes. The results of their analy-
sis revealed that women show higher scores
for deontological tendencies than men.
Besides the gender differences related to
moral decision-making, much of the previous
evidence about the presence of different
choice styles has also focused on risk-taking
behavior in economic scenarios. In particu-
lar, one of the most recurring results is that
women might be less risk-seeking and more
risk aversive than men.
58
However, it also
seems that in the attempt to maximize their
gains, men take more risky decisions, but also
pay more for the consequences of their
choices.
59
To explore risk-taking behaviors in un-
certain conditions, previous research imple-
mented specific computerized tasks which
simulate decision-making.
The Iowa Gambling Task (IGT)
60
is one
of the best known in the literature. It is a
card game in which subjects are presented
with four decks of cards. Each of them can
either reward or penalize them in terms of
game money. The aim of the game is to win
as much money as possible. However, the
four decks differ based on the balance of
gain/loss cards. Thus, there are “bad decks”
and “good decks”.
Typically, after about 40 or 50 selections,
participants are rather good at identifying
the good ones. Previous research, however,
revealed that women perform more poorly
than men
61
since they exhibit more loss aver-
sive behavior in the task by avoiding the ad-
vantageous decks, which are accompanied by
possible big losses. Other perspectives, how-
ever, underlined the importance of focusing
on the existing differences in information
processing to frame the distinct decision-
making behaviors.
62
In detail, it seems that
men attend more to global information by
focusing on a single relevant information,
while women consider multiple aspects of a
problem.
63
For example, in the IGT, women
consider the frequency of both rewards and
penalties of each deck, as well as the overall
pay-off.
64
On the other hand, men decide
based more on the long-term payoff of each
deck considered alone.
Finally, another possible frame where
gender was considered as a significant varia-
ble for decision-making is shopping.
65
For
example, previous studies highlighted an ef-
Moral Decision-making as Compared to Economic and Shopping Contexts
fect of gender over the involvement in
Christmas shopping.
66
Moreover, gender stereotypes proved to
be correlated with memory tasks. Specifical-
ly, it has been shown that women are more
efficient at memorizing grocery than geo-
graphical directions. The same did not apply
to hardware shopping lists.
67
Also, neuroimag-
ing studies highlighted the presence of specific
neural networks in men and women when
choosing groceries.
68
In summary, at present,
there is evidence about the presence of signifi-
cantly different decision-making behaviors
between women and men in different real-life
contexts. Also, as reported by a recent meta-
analysis,
69
it seems that different experimental
conditions can significantly modify the choice
behaviors in man and women.
The present study: Aims and hypotheses
We developed our experimental hypothe-
ses starting from the consideration that men
and women may show different attitudes in
deciding to accept or refuse some offers when
exposed to scenarios with or without a moral
subject. Thus, we proposed three adapted ver-
sions of the Ultimatum Game,
70
a popular in-
strument used in economic experiments, set in
economic, moral or shopping scenarios.
The first aim was to compare the ac-
ceptance rates in these different contexts. Ac-
cording to what discussed so far, and thanks to
the presence of intrinsic motivations, we ex-
pected a general higher acceptance rate for the
moral condition.
The second aim was to compare the
choice behaviors between unfair and fair of-
fers, for which we hypothesized a higher ac-
ceptance rate according to a maximization of
utility. Moreover, we were interested in com-
bining these variables with gender differ-
ences. Here, we expected a higher number of
accepted offers in the economic and shop-
ping scenarios by men since these choices
could be guided by more extrinsic than in-
trinsic motivations that could lead to a more
rational reasoning.
Finally, we were interested in examining
the correlation between choices and risk-
taking attitudes. In particular, we expected
the presence of specific differences in the
combination of personality attitudes, gender,
and decision-making scenarios.
Methods
Participants
202 volunteers participated in the exper-
iment. Three of them were excluded due to
data incompleteness. Thus, the final sample
included 199 participants, 137 women and 62
men of comparable age (Mfemales = 22.9; SD =
6.2; Mmales = 21.9; SD = 2.8). The experiment
was conducted in accordance with the Decla-
ration of Helsinki and all the procedure were
carried out with an adequate understanding
of the subjects. No payment was provided.
Procedure
The experiment was inspired by the Ulti-
matum Game (UG) and built up using the
same structure. Thus, there was a hypothet-
ical bidder who made some different pro-
posals that participants were asked whether
to accept or not. According to the original
paradigm, subjects were informed that, in
case they did not accept, both parts would
have lost the amount of the payoff. Partici-
pants were first asked to read carefully the
instructions.
The questionnaire was composed of dif-
ferent hypothetical situations framed in 3
scenarios: economic (E), moral (M) and
shopping (S). In the E situation, the scenario
described the story of a work colleague ask-
ing for help with an extra-work that could
lead to extra money. Participants were also
informed that, after accepting the job, the
contribution from the two parts was substan-
tially equal. After that, they were required to
accept or refuse some possible offers from
the colleague about how to split the earned
money, which consisted of 1000. In the M
Lucchiari, Meroni & Vanutelli
56
condition, participants were required to im-
agine a situation in which they won a special
bonus at work in addition to their usual sala-
ry. However, in order to help a colleague in
times of need, they were proposed by their
boss to split this bonus with a beneficial asso-
ciation, which supported his son/daughter
fighting against leukemia.
Finally, in the S scenario, participants
were presented with a situation in which they
could benefit from a voucher offered by a
colleague and valid only in an affiliated shop
for the same day. In this case, participants
were required to accept or refuse some offers
related to a shirt they wanted. In all cases,
they were reminded about the fact that if
they had rejected the offer neither of the two
parts would have obtained anything. Each
situation involved 3 other types of offers,
that were presented in a randomized order
within each condition. The offers could be
neutral (N) or unfair. In the case of a neutral
proposal, the money of the E and M situa-
tions was equally distributed between the
two parts (50%/50%), while in S the tenden-
cy to use the voucher was encouraged by the
fact that the shirt was not exactly the one de-
sired, but very close in colour.
For what concerns, instead, the unfair
conditions, they could be of two kinds:
downwards (D) or upwards (U) in relation to
the bidder. In detail, for E and M conditions,
the D offer led to a disadvantage for the sub-
jects (20% vs. the 80% for the colleague or
the association), while the U offer proposed
the opposite outcome. For the S condition,
instead, the D offer consisted in using the
voucher for an imperfect shirt, while the U
offer allowed using the voucher for a shirt
that, by mistake, was more expensive than it
was written on the price tag.
Thus, the questionnaire was composed by 9
sections, 3 for economic (E), 3 for moral (M)
and 3 for shopping (S) situations, with neutral
(N), downwards (D) or upwards (U) offers.
The completion required about 20 minutes.
Participants had to take a choice by crossing
the proper answer to accept or refuse the offer.
BRET
The Bomb Risk Elicitation Task (BRET) is
an intuitive task aimed at measuring risk atti-
tudes. Subjects decide how many boxes to col-
lect out of 100, one of which contains a bomb.
Earnings increase linearly with the number of
boxes accumulated but are zero if the bomb is
also collected. The BRET requires minimal
numeracy skills, avoids truncation of the data,
allows the precise estimation of both risk
aversion and risk seeking, and is not affected
by the degree of loss aversion or by violations
of the Reduction Axiom.
71
Results
ANOVAs
To explore the tendency to accept or refuse
offers across the different experimental condi-
tions, the number of “accepted” answers was
transformed into percentages and used as de-
pendent variable in a mixed-design ANOVA,
with Condition (3: E, M, S) and Offer (3: N, D,
U) as repeated factor, and gender (2: M, F) as
between factor.
Results showed a significant effect for Con-
dition (F (2,376) =101.75; p<0.001; η2p=0.35).
Paired multiple comparisons revealed that
judges were more inclined to accept offers
within the M condition (M=77.76%; SD=2.26)
than the E (p<0.0001; M=45.11%; SD=2.1)
and the S (p<0.005; M=69.15%; SD=1.83)
condition. In addition, the S condition trig-
gered a significantly higher accept rate than the
E one (p<0.005; M=69.15%; SD=1.83).
Also, the analysis revealed a significant Con-
dition *Offer effect (F4,752=42.05; p<0.0001;
η2p=0.18). Post-hoc comparisons revealed that
in the E task, N offers (M=80.5%; SD=2.43)
were accepted more than U offers (M=36.03%;
SD=3.38), which, in turn, were accepted more
often than the D ones (M=18.79%; SD=2.73)
(all p<0.0001). On the other hand, in the M
task, the N offers (M=87.83%; SD=2.32) were
accepted more often than both (p<0.0001) un-
fair offers (MD=72.09%; SD=3.22; MU=73.36%;
Moral Decision-making as Compared to Economic and Shopping Contexts
SD=3.29), which did not differ each other. Fi-
nally, in the S task, N (M=74.47%; SD=2.53)
and U (M=72.03%; SD=2.72) offers were both
accepted significantly more often than the D
ones (M=60.96%; SD=2.42).
Interestingly, responses in the different
conditions were also modulated by Gender, as
revealed by the significant Condition *Gender
interaction (F(2,376)=7.12; p<0.005; η2p=0.04).
Post-hoc comparisons revealed that men were
more inclined to accept E offers (M=53.67%;
SD=3.47) than women (p<0.001; M=36.54%;
SD=2.33). Similarly, they were more inclined to
accept S offers (M=53.67%; SD=3.47) than
women (p=0.05; M=72.66%; SD=3.04). No
significant differences emerged for the M situa-
tion.
Fig. 1: Acceptance rates in men and women
as revealed by the Condition * Gender effect.
Moreover, the analysis revealed a significant
effect for Offer (F(2,376)=116.08; p<0.001;
η2p=0.38). Paired multiple comparisons re-
vealed that fair offers were more often accepted
(M=80.93%; SD=1.71) than U offers (p<0.001;
M=60.47%; SD=2.2) which, in turn, were more
often accepted than D offers (p<0.001;
M=50.61%; SD=1.87). Such an effect was also
modulated by Gender, as revealed by the signif-
icant Offer*Gender interaction (F(2,376) =
7.12; p<0.005; η2p=0.04). Post-hoc compari-
sons revealed that men were more inclined to
accept U offers (M=68.02%; SD=3.66) than
women (p<0.005; M=52.93%; SD=2.46).
Moreover, men accepted significantly
(p<0.0001) more often U (M=68.02%;
SD=3.66) than D (M=52.32%; SD=3.11) of-
fers, while the effect was not significant for
women (MU=52.93%; SD=2.46; MD=48.91%;
SD=2.09.
Fig. 2: Acceptance rates in men and women
as revealed by the Offer * Gender Effect
Correlations
Pearson’s correlation analysis was applied
to every dependent variable, including the
acceptance percentage in every condition,
with regard to BRET scorings. With regard
to the E task, results showed a positive corre-
lation between BRET scorings and the num-
ber of accepted D offers (r=0.24; p<0.01) for
women, and a negative one between BRET
and the amount of accepted U offers (r=-
0.33; p<0.05) for men. For what concerns the
M task, instead, results showed a positive re-
lation between BRET scorings and the num-
ber of accepted N offers (r=0.19; p<0.01) for
women, and a negative correlation between
BRET and the number of accepted N offers
(r=-0.29; p<0.05) for men.
Discussion and conclusion
The present study aimed at investigating
the decision-making behaviors of men and
women during three different scenarios of
the Ultimatum Game, including or not in-
cluding a moral component, as well as fair
and unfair offers. In so doing we wanted to
test if gender differences might modulate
moral and economic decision-making, within
the frame of utilitarianism. In fact, it de-
Lucchiari, Meroni & Vanutelli
58
scribes very well how the evaluation of costs
and benefits may similarly determine human
decisions in a variety of domains.
72
It is well
known that utilitarian and non-utilitarian
decisions may be linked to the recruitment of
two different thinking systems,
73
one slow
and reflective (system 2) and the other fast
and intuitive (system 1). In this sense, utili-
tarian decisions should involve system 2, thus
leading to more reflective and less intuitive
decisions in evaluating both economic and
moral dilemmas.
However, this rational system does not re-
ly simply on pure data and well-designed al-
gorithms, but it is still influenced by a num-
ber of biological, subjective, contextual and
cultural factors so that we can state each de-
cision is the consequence of a balanced cog-
nitive functioning.
74
Indeed, if we may suggest that utilitarian
decisions need reflection, in prosocial con-
texts humans often show to be intuitively al-
truistic, even if altruism is generally associat-
ed with system 2 instead of system 1.
This may be due to the fact that altruism
is often advantageous in the social context
and so we become altruistic thanks to a learn-
ing process that may involve an intuitive
mechanism that Rand and colleagues called
Social Heuristics.
75
This learning process
could perhaps explain gender-related differ-
ences, since women are often described to be
more altruistic in real-life conditions, proba-
bly because of a higher social heuristics sen-
sibility.
76
Thus, it is important to deepen our
knowledge about the factors that may modu-
late human decisions. According to the
abovementioned assumptions, we designed
the present study to analyze how biological
and cultural gender-related differences may
affect the evaluation of some simple decision
scenarios.
A first significant result highlighted the
presence of higher acceptance rates for the
moral scenario. This was an expected result
since we wanted our three conditions to be
differently considered by responders based
on their content. We believe that the moral
scenario affected subjects’ responses, pushing
for offers acceptance independent of any
other contextual factors.
77
In this context, in
fact, our aim was to push participants to
think about ethical obligations to others in-
stead of more general considerations about
perceived fairness or unfairness of offers.
We found this effect to be significant both
for men and for women since all participants
showed a similar response pattern.
In particular, the moral scenario led to a
higher number of acceptances respectively
for neutral (N), advantaging (U) and disad-
vantaging (D) offers.
Moreover, as a second result, an interaction
effect between condition and offer emerged,
showing that in the economic scenario, fair (N)
offers were accepted more than advantaging
(U) offers which, in turn, were accepted more
often than disadvantaging (D) offers. In the
moral scenario, instead, fair offers were accept-
ed more often than unfair offers (both ad-
vantaging and disadvantaging that did not dif-
fer from each other). Finally, in the shopping
task, fair and advantaging offers were both ac-
cepted significantly more often than the disad-
vantaging offers.
A third significant result revealed how the
evaluation of the decision scenario may be
modulated by gender-related differences: in
fact, although the moral scenario led to the
same acceptance rate in both genders, eco-
nomic and shopping offers were more likely
to be accepted by men than women. Follow-
ing the Social Heuristics Hypothesis (SHH)
78
one would expect to find gender-related dif-
ferences, especially in moral dilemmas. How-
ever, we argue that the SHH is particularly
useful to find out differences in a situation
much similar to everyday life, while we used a
quite artificial setting probably not so effi-
cient in triggering the Social Heuristics and
the related prosocial behavior.
Instead, we could suggest that the differ-
ences found between men and women in
economic scenarios might be linked to a dif-
ferent level of data processing. In particular,
it seems that men were more inclined to pur-
Moral Decision-making as Compared to Economic and Shopping Contexts
sue a sort of optimal (effective) altruism
when evaluating economic tasks.
79
Different-
ly from the intuitive altruism described by
the SSH, optimal altruism is a prosocial be-
havior that considers the proper means that
may be applied in a given context, so consid-
ering the obligation to others needs in a ra-
tional way. In this sense, optimal altruism
implies a utilitarian reasoning and the activa-
tion of thinking system 2. This way, in our
experiment, male participants obtained on
average a higher gain.
We might argue that men considered the
economic scenarios in a more reflective way,
while women often relied their decisions on
intuitive evaluation, thus being vulnerable to
the negative emotions elicited by unfair of-
fers. This is coherent with a vision of women
as being more affected by prosocial consider-
ations in everyday life situations. However,
we can also offer other interpretations. First
of all, since we used an ultimatum game par-
adigm, the differences we found might be
due to a different consideration of risk. Since
women are generally reported to be more risk
aversive than men,
80
we might think that
women interpreted unfair offers as potential
risks to avoid. Of course, we might also hy-
pothesize that female participants were less
cognitively involved in economic tasks and
that this fact prevents them to reflect proper-
ly on the decision to take. Actually, some
studies reported women to be more affected
by the specific characteristics of the experi-
mental condition or task.
81
At this regard, though we did not find any
significant difference between men and
women in risk propensity as measured by
BRET, our correlational analyses revealed
that in the economic task a higher risk-taking
propensity was associated with a higher ac-
ceptance rate of disadvantaging offers in
women, and a lower acceptance rate of ad-
vantaging offers in men. On the other hand,
with regard to the moral scenario, a higher
risk-taking propensity was associated with a
higher acceptance rate of fair offers in wom-
en, and lower acceptance rate for men.
Finally, another significant finding emerged
about the type of offer. According to our expec-
tations, in fact, fair (N) offers were more likely
to be accepted. These offers, in fact, are those
that maximize utility, since both parts can ac-
cess half of the disputed goods. However, this
effect was differently modulated in men and
women. In fact, men were more inclined to ac-
cept advantages (U) offers than women. They
also accepted more often advantaging (U) than
disadvantaging (D) offers. Women, on the oth-
er side, equally accepted U and D offers, mean-
ing that in the case of an unfair offer, they ac-
cepted or refused them in a similar way, wheth-
er gaining or losing more money than the al-
leged opponent.
This fact may be considered as the result
of a cognitive process aimed at maximizing
the final monetary outcome for both parts
(i.e. it would be a utilitarian behavior), even
if it implies the acceptance of a social ine-
quality. It’s also important to underline that
men tried to avoid perceived losses. Instead,
women did not show this asymmetric pat-
tern. These results may be modulated by the
risk-taking propensity. Coherently with our
data, Andreoni and Vesterlund
82
described a
quantitative curve for altruism, since it seems
modulated by a sort of price effect. Intuitive-
ly, it means that it is easier to be altruistic
when it is cheap, while when altruism implies
a higher price the altruistic decision becomes
cognitively heavier. However, women and
men seem to be differently affected by the
price, with men being more altruistic when it
is cheap, while women are more inclined to
be generous when higher prices are implied.
Our tasks, then, seems to be more congenial
for male altruism.
To conclude, our data suggest the pres-
ence of gender differences in decision-
making. Of course, our study presents some
limitations that must be considered before
attempting generalization.
First of all, the tasks we used are quite ar-
tificial and probably the cognitive processing
is quite different than real-life situations.
Second, it is well-known how gender differ-
Lucchiari, Meroni & Vanutelli
60
ences in decision-making are often influ-
enced by the specific features of the experi-
mental conditions. So, it is possible that the
same paradigm may lead to slightly different
results changing the experimental set-up.
However, these problems are quite common
in psychological studies on moral decision-
making. In addition, the sample presents
some peculiarities, since women’s group is
bigger than men’s one. Thus, future research
should better consider this point for a more
precise comparison.
Moreover, it is composed by young uni-
versity students, while we might think that
the age-related social learning might impact
on moral as well as economics evaluations.
Accordingly, age-related effects could be bet-
ter explored in future contributions. Anyway,
our results are strong enough to deserve at-
tention both to suggest practical considera-
tions and to stimulate future research. In par-
ticular, we argue that the presented data sug-
gest that considering utilitarian decisions as
the results of a reflective process is a simplis-
tic vision. Utilitarian and non-utilitarian be-
haviors both involve the use of system 1 and
system 2, so that the different factors related
to the decision context may produce a specif-
ic balance. In particular, the role of gender in
modulating the achievement of this balance
seems quite strong. Men seem to be more ra-
tional in pursuing altruism while women are
more intuitive and more oriented to human
needs than economic considerations.
However, it is not clear if these effects are
due to cultural-related biases, that push
women and men to put attention on different
aspects of life and to adopt different cogni-
tive styles, or to biological differences. How-
ever, this question is rather misleading. In
fact, it is quite difficult to distinguish be-
tween the effects of the cultural domain on
the cognitive performance and, more gener-
ally, the complex interaction between cultur-
al and biological factors, which cannot be ex-
cluded in the interpretation of gender-related
differences.
83
Thus, though we argue that
utilitarian and altruistic attitudes are differ-
ently modulated by task demands in men and
women, we cannot state that these differ-
ences are more related to biological charac-
teristics or to cultural biases.
However, we can argue that education
and school programs might consider putting
attention on the gender-related differences
highlighted in this as well as other studies,
both to reduce gender inequities and to ex-
ploit gender differences to empower deci-
sion-making skills in different domains.
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... Indeed, participants know that, if they reject the offer, they lose all the money, and so they need to calculate the pros and cons correctly. On the other hand, we expected that upside offers would be associated with more emotion-related processing, especially for females, since accepting more than the opponent could elicit prosocial reflections and unfairness avoidance [46][47][48]. ...
... In particular, we hypothesized that the lOFC would be particularly active in regulating the DLPFC activity and avoiding fast (impulsive) decisions. Based on previous research [31,46,49], it may be supposed that females will show more altruistic behaviors, while males would be more self-focused. Furthermore, other evidence suggests that males override intuitive moral options in highly emotional and challenging moral dilemmas more often than females do [31]. ...
... On the other hand, females seem to be more empathetic and to care for others at risk. Finally, in agreement with previous studies [46], we might expect females to be more cognitively involved in moral tasks and that this will probably affect their responses. Indeed, some studies reported females to be more affected by the specific features of the experimental conditions [50]. ...
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