In the 2008 film The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s sadistic Joker constantly makes Batman and the city of Gotham choose between two options: Save the girl or save the district attorney? Blow up a boat of criminals or blow up a boat of civilians?
It turns out dilemmas like these haven’t only been the subject of debate between Batman nerds on Reddit (not that I know from personal experience)—scientists have been looking into how real-life humans handle extreme moral dilemmas as well. Their latest finding? Our responses may depend on our gender.
A recent study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examined how men and women approach extreme moral quandaries. Was a particular gender more likely to take a "deontological" route (one heavily influenced by emotions and moral beliefs) or a "utilitarian" route (one influenced by practical thinking)?
The researchers from Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University asked 6,100 participants to respond to a series of morally perplexing scenarios. In one particularly compelling example, the researchers asked participants: Would you kill Adolf Hitler back in 1920, before he had committed any crimes, to prevent the Holocaust?
The researchers found that there was indeed a difference in how men and women approached each situation. Women tended to give more deontological responses—they had a tough time morally justifying causing immediate harm to someone, even if the consequences were positive. And men tended to take a utilitarian stance—they were more willing to transgress moral norms for a greater good.
In the Hitler scenario, specifically, men were more willing to kill a not-yet-guilty German than women—though women found it harder to arrive at their decision.
"According to what is arguably the most prominent model of moral dilemma judgments we have currently, women's tendency to respond in a way that avoids violence is the result of an emotional reaction to the idea of harming a specific person," Rebecca Friesdorf, lead author and a social psychology master's student, told Fusion in an e-mail.
"That is, women have a gut-level reaction to hurting others. We speculate that this reaction may occur in part because women tend to be more empathetic to/in touch with the feelings of others than men."
Curious about your own responses to extreme moral dilemmas? We took some of the actual questions from the study (with Friesdorf's permission, of course) and repurposed them into the quiz above. See where your ideology falls in the moral judgment spectrum!