Imagine that you have the opportunity to save a group of people. But in order to do so, you have to kill someone. Would you be able to do it? Carlos David Navarrete, an evolutionary psychologist at Michigan State University, has created an updated virtual version of “the trolley problem” to find out what percentage of people would sacrifice one to save many,
The original trolley problem, designed by philosopher Philippa Foot, asks:
“A trolley is running out of control toward five people who have been tied to the track. You have the opportunity to flip a switch and send the trolley down a different track. If you do this, you will save the group of five but you will kill one individual who has been tied to the second track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?”
Navarrete developed a virtual simulation of the trolley problem. Here’s the video from Michigan State.
Discovery News reports that each participant was given a virtual switch that they could use during the simulation. The participants watched the train barrel down the track and had to decide whether or not they should flip the switch.
Out of the 147 participants, 133 decided to hit the switch and send the train toward the single person. Navarette’s study mirrors the results found by Flippa and subsequent philosophers. But what makes Naverette’s study different, is that he also attempted to measure the emotional state of the participants during the experiment.
Naverette found that the 14 people who didn’t flip the switch were more emotionally aroused. Naverette isn’t sure why, but he theorizes that it may be because they “freeze up” during highly anxious moments, like when a soldier fails to use their weapons in battle.
“I think humans have an aversion to harming others that needs to be overridden by something. By rational thinking we can sometimes override it – by thinking about the people we will save, for example. But for some people, that increase in anxiety may be so overpowering that they don’t make the utilitarian choice, the choice for the greater good.”
So what would you do? Would you interfere and sentence an individual to death? Or would you let the train run its course and kill five people?