Empathy and moral choices—study limits the role of emotions in moral decisions

February 17, 2017

Empathy and emotional awareness do not affect our moral decisions. This is suggested by a new study published on Social Neuroscience and led by SISSA neuroscientist Marilena Aiello. Our choices do not depend on our empathy. The difference, instead, lies in our emotional reactions, more pronounced in more empathic people. In particular if we opt for uncomfortable decisions for a greater good.

Could you harm another person to save yourself? Could you kill one person to save five? The answer depends neither on our ability to share someone else's feelings – known as – nor on our lack of emotional awareness – known as alexithymia. Surprisingly, the decision taken will be the same, both for emotional and detached people. The difference lies instead in the emotional reactions to the decision-making process.

"This is the first study to analyse at the same time the role of empathy and alexithymia in moral choices through decision-making rather than judgment tasks, in order to investigate what happens when subjects are directly involved" Marilena Aiello and Cinzia Cecchetto, first author of the study, explain. "Moreover, for the first time we examined the emotional reactions with both explicit and implicit measures, combining participants' self-reports with two physiological indices: and skin conductance".

The study involved forty-one volunteers, whose levels of empathy and alexithymia were assessed through standard questionnaires used by clinicians. Participants had to solve forty-six dilemmas, with either deontological – i.e. based on the principle of not harming others – or utilitarian choices – i.e. based on the achievement of a greater good. During the tasks, researchers monitored heart rate and skin conductance of participants, who, at the end of each dilemma, reported on their emotional state.

To better understand, let's imagine there is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people. The only way to save them is by pulling a lever that will make the trolley switch to a side track, where, however, there is another person. Would you pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track to save five people? The utilitarian choice would be "yes", the deontological one "no".

"We expected a high number of deontological choices in individuals with high empathy and a high number of utilitarian choices in people with high alexithymia. Instead we found out that the type of decision depends neither on our empathy nor on our alexithymia" Cinzia Cecchetto comments. "However, both explicit and implicit measures of confirmed what we expected: more emphatic individuals experience higher distress in utilitarian choices. Similar results appeared only through implicit measures in individuals with high levels of alexithymia who, in line with the type of disorder, showed reduced physiological activation during , but normal self-report ratings.".

"These are important results, not only because they suggest that moral decisions are more rational than what was previously suggested, but also for the methodological approach" Marilena Aiello concludes.

Explore further: Study says empathy plays a key role in moral judgments

More information: Cinzia Cecchetto et al. Emotional reactions in moral decision-making are influenced by empathy and alexithymia, Social Neuroscience (2017). DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2017.1288656

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RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Feb 17, 2017
If you purport to have killed a person to save five then you will be tried and convicted of murder as there is absolutely no way that you can proved that five people would have died if the one person was not killed in the trolley or train scenarios to which the 'Moral Dilemma' test usually refers. People knowing this, and knowing how tangled and complicated getting involved in an unfolding situation will make a decision based on that and not the 'one verses five' moral Dilemma actually being tested making these tests all but irrelevant and entirely misleading....how could you, an ordinary citizen and not an expert, possibly have had knowledge of the impending deaths?? You couldn't.

The only condition in which a one-five might be instructive is if a person shot someone at random and there was a reasonable probability that he intended to kill five more that are within range, would you then shoot him if you had the chance?

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