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

February 17, 2017, International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA)

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

Related Stories

Study says empathy plays a key role in moral judgments

May 22, 2013
Is it permissible to harm one to save many? Those who tend to say "yes" when faced with this classic dilemma are likely to be deficient in a specific kind of empathy, according to a report published in the scientific journal ...

Research tests how people make moral decisions using classic dilemmas

August 24, 2016
Is it acceptable and moral to sacrifice a few people's lives to save many others? An academic at City University London has developed a new model with colleagues to test in an unbiased way how people make such decisions using ...

'I care for you,' says the autistic moral brain

March 29, 2016
Is it true that autistic people are cold and feel no empath? It is a pervasive stereotype, but when analyzed through the lens of science, reality turns out to be quite different. According to a study at SISSA carried out ...

Using a foreign language changes moral decisions

April 28, 2014
Would you sacrifice one person to save five? Such moral choices could depend on whether you are using a foreign language or your native tongue. A new study from psychologists at the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra ...

People with autism more likely to 'follow their heads and not their hearts'

October 13, 2016
Scientists at King's College London have shown why people with autism are more logical in their decision-making and less susceptible to the so-called 'Framing Effect'compared to people who do not have the disorder.

The trolley dilemma—would you kill one person to save five?

June 3, 2016
Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won't be able to move out ...

Recommended for you

Silence is golden when it comes to how our brains work

June 18, 2018
It's the comparative silence between the firing spikes of neurons that tells what they are really up to, scientists report.

Observing brain plasticity during cello training

June 15, 2018
Music acquisition provides an excellent model of neural plasticity, and has become a hot research subject in neurology. Music performance provides an unmatched array of neural complexities revealing how neural networks are ...

New discovery about the brain's water system may prove beneficial in stroke

June 15, 2018
Water is transported from the blood into the brain via an ion transporter, according to a new study on mice conducted at the University of Copenhagen. If the mechanism can be targeted with medicine, it may prove relevant ...

Study shows how intensive instruction changes brain circuitry in struggling readers

June 14, 2018
The early years are when the brain develops the most, forming neural connections that pave the way for how a child—and the eventual adult—will express feelings, embark on a task, and learn new skills and concepts.

When emotional memories intrude, focusing on context could help, study finds

June 14, 2018
When negative memories intrude, focusing on the contextual details of the incident rather than the emotional fallout could help minimize cognitive disruption and redirect the brain's resources to the task at hand, suggests ...

The neurons that rewrite traumatic memories

June 14, 2018
Memories of traumatic experiences can lead to mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can destroy a person's life. It is currently estimated that almost a third of all people will suffer ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

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?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.