Women and men react to dilemmas differently

  • April 08, 2015
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Women and men react to dilemmas differently


If there were a time machine, would it be right to kill Adolf Hitler when he was still a young artist to 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?

Men facing such dilemmas are typically more willing to accept harmful actions for the sake of the greater good than women, a study concludes-so women would be less likely than men to support harming the young Hitler or the bombing suspect.

The difference is attribute to women's greater emotional aversion to harmful actions against individuals-not a difference in how they rationally evaluate the outcomes, according to the research, published April 3 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“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,” said lead research author Rebecca Friesdorf. The finding runs against the common stereotype that women being more emotional means they're also less rational, Friesdorf said.

Friesdorf, a graduate student in social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, teamed up with other researchers for a reanalysis of data from 6,100 people who had been surveyed about dilemmas involving murder, torture, lying, abortion, and animal research.

The study examined two opposing philosophical principles: “deontology” and “utilitarianism.” The first says an action's rightness always depends on its fit with a moral norm. For instance Immanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher, claimed it was always wrong to lie, even if a murderer asked whether his intended victim was inside a house so he could kill him. Utilitarianism instead favors whatever is best for the greatest number of people, so that the ethical value of an action depends on the situation.

The research team found that women were more likely than men to follow deontological principles, but found no evidence for gender differences in utilitarian reasoning. This are in line with previous research showing that women are more empathetic to the feelings of other people, while gender differences in cognitive abilities tend to be small or nonexistent, Friesdorf said.

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