People using smartphones are more likely to make rational and unemotional decisions compared to computer users, when presented with a moral dilemma on their device, according to a new study.
Researchers from City, University of London in the UK found that PC users were more likely to favour action based on intuition and following established rules. The research suggests that moral judgements depend on the digital context in which a dilemma is presented and could have significant implications for how we interact with computers.
The researchers recruited 1,010 people and presented them with a classic moral dilemma known as the ‘Trolley Problem’. In the trolley problem, participants are told that there is a runaway trolley travelling quickly down the railway tracks.
Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move and the trolley is headed straight for them. The participants are then told that they are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever and that if you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, they are also told that there is one person on the side track.
As a result, participants are asked to either do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track or alternatively pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. In the ‘fat man’ version of this dilemma, the runaway trolley is again heading towards five innocent victims, but instead you and a fat man are standing on a footbridge overlooking the track.
In this dilemma, participants are told that they can spare the lives of the five people if they push the fat man off the bridge onto the tracks below, stopping the trolley. In both scenarios participants are asked to sacrificing one life to save five other, but the lever trolley dilemma is impersonal while the footbridge dilemma is personal.
When presented with different scenarios, the researchers found that participants in the fat man dilemma were more likely to opt for sacrificing the fat man (utilitarian response) to save five people when using a smartphone (33.5 per cent) than when using a PC (22.3 per cent). In the lever condition, it was also found that slightly more participants decided to sacrifice one man by pulling the switch than to do nothing and let five people die (80.9 per cent for the Smartphone users; 76.9 per cent for the PC users).
As a result, the study suggests that even under conditions of time pressure, some digital contexts – such as using a smartphone – could trigger utilitarian decision-making. “When people used a smartphone to view classic moral problems, they were more likely to make more unemotional, rational decisions when presented with a highly emotional dilemma,” said Albert Barque-Duran, from City, University of London and lead author of the study.
“This could be due to the increased time pressures often present with smartphones and also the increased psychological distance which can occur when we use such devices compared to PCs,” said Barque-Duran.