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Gender differences in moral judgements linked to emotion


You can see more funny stuff like this over at SMBC

If a time machine was available, would it be right to kill Adolf Hitler when he was still a young Austrian artist to prevent World War II and save millions of lives? Should a police officer torture an alleged bomber to find hidden explosives that could kill many people at a local cafe? When faced with such dilemmas, men are typically more willing to accept harmful actions for the sake of the greater good than women. For example, women would be less likely to support the killing of a young Hitler or torturing a bombing suspect, even if doing so would ultimately save more lives.

According to new research, this gender difference in moral decisions is caused by stronger emotional aversion to harmful action among women; the study found no evidence for gender differences in the rational evaluation of the outcomes of harmful actions.

“Women are more likely to have a gut-level negative reaction to causing harm to an individual, while men experience less emotional responses to doing harm,” says lead research author Rebecca Friesdorf.

“The finding runs contrary to the common stereotype that women being more emotional means that they are also less rational.”

In a large-scale reanalysis of data from 6,100 participants examined gender differences in judgments about moral dilemmas. Participants were asked 20 questions that posed various moral dilemmas, including decisions about murder, torture, lying, abortion, and animal research.

The study examined two contrasting philosophical principles that relate to ethics. In deontology, the morality of an action depends on its consistency with a moral norm. Immanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher who was the most famous proponent of the theory, once argued that it was always wrong to lie, even if a murderer asked whether his intended victim was inside a house so he could kill him. Conversely, utilitarianism holds that an action is moral if it maximizes utility, or the greatest good for the most people. From a utilitarian view, an action could be ethical in one situation and unethical in another depending on the potential outcome.

Using an advanced statistical procedure to quantify the strength of deontological and utilitarian inclinations, the research team found that women were more likely than men to adhere to deontological principles. However, the researchers found no evidence for gender differences in utilitarian reasoning. The findings suggest that women have a stronger emotional aversion to causing harm than men. However, men and women engage in similar levels of rational thinking about the outcomes of harmful action. The findings are in line with previous research showing that women are more empathetic to the feelings of other people than men, whereas gender differences in cognitive abilities tend to be small or nonexistent.

Friesdorf, R., Conway, P., & Gawronski, B. (2015). Gender Differences in Responses to Moral Dilemmas: A Process Dissociation Analysis Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41 (5), 696-713 DOI: 10.1177/0146167215575731

6 responses

  1. khendradm

    I asked both of my parents about the Hitler and the torture scenarios, without giving them the outcomes of men and women in order to not bias them either way, and I was surprised to see that both agreed it was wrong to kill Hitler or torture the person. My dad, then, is unusually empathetic per the statistics given here, falling in a minority percentage among men with his views.

    It is important to recognize also the reasoning behind why people might have such views. The Hitler scenario, either way, is what-if. None of us can go back in time and decide Hitler’s fate either way. And suppose we did allow him to live – for those who would allow him to live, they would perhaps suppose and hope to alter his environment in such a way as to prevent him from doing what he did. In the torture scenario, there is always the distinct possibility that torture wouldn’t work. Many folks, including Jihadists, are so loyal to the cause – even to death – that torture wouldn’t phase them. And then, again, we would have to consider potential alternative methods of finding the explosives without necessarily needing to kill the possessor.

    As one can see, reasoning goes deeper beyond empathetic feelings here, or even men and women, in some cases.


    April 5, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    • I was a little nervous when I read the first lines of your comment. But by the time I finished it, I found your comment super insightful. Your changing the present from the past comment was the exact line of thinking I had when I used the comic at the top.

      In any case (and I feel like I’ve said this before) I love your blog. Also from your about page, I’m sorry to hear educational options are limited where you are, that’s not right.

      Thanks for the comment, I really appreciate thoughtful insights from others.


      April 5, 2015 at 1:35 pm

  2. Kelsea

    Women in general are much more empathetic than men. Yes, stereotypical gender roles focus women as the emotional sex and men as the bread winner, more prone to engage in violence to protect themselves or others. I don’t see gender roles playing a huge part in the rational of moral judgments, however I do see how statistics could portray women as being the more sensitive type upon answering such questions alike the killing adolescent Hitler for instance.

    What if we killed Hitler before he came into power? Yes, at the moment technically no harm was caused by the young man. However, having seen what a threat his corrupted brain has caused on a huge portion of the world in the foreseeable future, I would definitely answer that yes, we should take out that threat immediately. I am a female, and do usually sway to the more sensitive side regarding difficult morality what-if questions. However in this case, it is something greater than gender roles I believe. For the greater good, alike the utilitarian viewpoint, killing an individual who has the potential to single handedly demonstrate so much harm and chaos on the world, should be demolished before being allowed that ability to rise to such power.

    I do believe that the morally just answer will vary in different situations. For example, it is unjust for a man to kill another walking down the street for no apparent reasoning other than for merely malicious intent. What if the situation however held deeper reasoning? What if the man walking down the street brutally raped the daughter of the man with the gun? The difference in scenarios drastically change and almost pardon the situation entirely, that is according to whomever you are speaking to. The way I see it, there are laws put in place for a reason, however there are some cases to where the law needs to be taken into your own hands. Morality is such a broad subject and will never be fully understood by us mere imperfect human beings.

    I believe a lot can be done to fix a situation prior to physically harm being inflicted. I figure that falls into the standard category of emotional appeal for women. However there are circumstances still that unfortunately involve physical harm that is well deserved.


    April 5, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    • I sort of giggled at well deserved harm, but seriously I’m glad you stopped to write your thoughts. Thank you for the comment and your insights.


      April 6, 2015 at 12:37 pm

  3. I wonder what would happen if a similar study were done using a framework of ethical egoism like what was advocated by Ayn Rand, rather than traditional schools of ethics.


    April 5, 2015 at 10:13 pm

    • I’m not a huge Ayn Rand fan, not going to lie. But I don’t suppose that too many people live life using an ethical egoism approach. In that I just mean that I don’t really see the general population naturally using ethical egoism to adjust their moral compass. I don’t feel like I’m being clear here, but hopefully you get the general idea.


      April 6, 2015 at 12:44 pm

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