SAN FRANCISCO — When faced with a thorny moral dilemma, what people say they would do and what people actually do are two very different things, a new study finds. In a hypothetical scenario, most people said they would never subject another person to a painful electric shock, just to make a little bit of money. But for people given a real-world choice, the sparks flew.
The results, presented April 4 at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, serve as a reminder that hypothetical scenarios don’t capture the complexities of real decisions.
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Morality studies in the lab almost always rely on asking participants to imagine how they’d behave in a certain situation, study coauthor Oriel FeldmanHall of Cambridge University said in her presentation. But these imagined situations are missing teeth: “Whatever you choose, it’s not going to happen,” she said.
But in FeldmanHall’s study, things actually happened. “There are real shocks and real money on the table,” she said. Subjects lying in an MRI scanner were given a choice: Either administer a painful electric shock to a person in another room and make one British pound (a little over a dollar and a half), or spare the other person the shock and forgo the money. Shocks were priced in a graded manner, so that the subject would earn less money for a light shock, and earn the whole pound for a severe shock. This same choice was given 20 times, and the person in the brain scanner could see a video of either the shockee’s hand jerk or both the hand jerk and the face grimace. (Although these shocks were real, they were pre-recorded.)
When researchers gave a separate group of people a purely hypothetical choice, about 64 percent said they wouldn’t ever deliver a shock — even a mild one — for money. Overall, people hypothetically judging what their actions would be netted only about four pounds on average.
But when there was cold, hard money involved, the data changed. A lot. A whopping 96 percent of people in the scanner chose to administer shocks for cash. “Three times as much money was kept in the real task,” FeldmanHall said. When participants saw only the hand of the person jerk as it got shocked, they chose to walk away with an “astonishing” 15.77 pounds on average out of a possible 20-pound windfall. The number dipped when participants saw both the hand and the face of the person receiving the shock: in these cases, people made off with an average of 11.55 pounds.
People grappling with the real moral dilemma — as opposed to people who had to choose in a hypothetical situation — had heightened activity in parts of the insula, a brain center thought to be involved in emotion, the study shows. FeldmanHall said that insula activity might represent a sort of visceral tension that’s going on in the body as a person pits the desire for money against the desire to not hurt someone. These visceral conflicts within a person seem to be missing in experiments with no real stakes, she said.
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“My initial response is it’s a really Milgram-esque experiment, harkening back to where people are induced to do something bad to someone else,” said cognitive neuroscientist Tor Wager of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, famously compelled people to administer painful electrical shocks to others.
Even though the findings are “a little bit chilling,” Wager says, “it’s important to know.” These kinds of studies can help scientists figure out how the brain dictates moral behavior. “There’s a real neuroscientific interest now in understanding the basis of compassion,” Wager says. “That’s something we are just starting to address scientifically, but it’s a critical frontier because it has such an impact on human life.”