The participants saw two cages – one housing one mouse, the other housing five – each wired to an electroshock machine. They were told that in 20 seconds, if they did nothing, the machine would deliver a very painful but nonlethal shock to the cage containing five mice. However, if the participants pressed a button in front of them, they could divert the electric shock to the cage containing one mouse, thus saving the other five from pain (in actuality this was an illusion and all participants were later informed that in fact no mice were shocked or harmed in the study).
The participants who performed the real-life mouse task behaved differently than those who made a purely hypothetical decision – they were less than half as likely to let the five mice get shocked (16 per cent of them left the button unpressed compared with 34 per cent of the hypothetical group). In other words, faced with a real-life dilemma, the volunteers were more consequentialist / utilitarian; that is, more willing to inflict harm for the greater good.
But the most important finding – at least for the validity of moral psychology which so often relies on thought experiments – is that the participants’ preference for deontological vs. utilitarian responding in their answers to the earlier battery of 10 hypothetical moral dilemmas bore no relation to their decision in the real-life mouse task (in contrast, the decisions of participants in the hypothetical mouse group were related to their answers to the earlier moral dilemmas). What is more, none of the psychological factors, such as psychopathy or need for cognition, were related to decision-making in the real-life moral dilemma.
image via pixabay: Alexas_Fotos