The Price of Principles: Experiments in Moral Decision-making

The Price of Principles: Experiments in Moral Decision-making

The Price of Principles: Experiments in Moral Decision-making
Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, London School of Economics
Thursday,  09 March 2017, 12:30 – 14:00 GMT

Room QUE3.28/9
3rd Floor, Queens House
55/56 Lincoln’s Inn Fields
London School of Economics and Political Science
WC2A 3LJ

A prohibition on harming others is enshrined in the rule books of human social life. Nevertheless, this rule is broken all too often, particularly when people have opportunities to profit from harming others. Decision-makers, from individuals to institutions, must often make trade-offs between financial interests and human welfare.

In my talk I will describe recent work showing that profits gained from immoral actions are experienced as less valuable than profits gained from actions that do not violate moral imperatives. In lab experiments we invited participants to gain money by inflicting painful electric shocks to either themselves or a stranger. Decisions were private, such that there were no reputational costs to profiting from the pain of others.

Past work in behavioural economics has shown that although most people do care about others’ welfare, they care about their own welfare far more. This leads to a straightforward prediction that most people will pay some money to alleviate others’ pain, but they will pay much more to alleviate their own pain. Contrary to this prediction, we found that most people were in fact willing to sacrifice more money to prevent pain to a stranger than themselves.

This “hyperaltruistic” behaviour was associated with reduced sensitivity to profits gained from harming others in the brain’s reward centres, and could be manipulated with a drug that alters dopamine levels in the brain. Intriguingly, hyperaltruism was not apparent when participants could donate their profits to a charity, suggesting that what people find particularly aversive is profiting personally from harm to others. This work identifies potential channels for discouraging harmful choices by individuals and institutions. Highlighting the personal benefits of negative externalities may activate a neural circuit for norm compliance that reshapes the values we use to make decisions.

About the Speaker

Dr Molly Crockett is Associate Professor of Experimental Psychology, Fellow of Jesus College, and Distinguished Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, University of Oxford. She holds a PhD in Experimental Psychology from the University of Cambridge and a BSc in Neuroscience from University of California, Los Angeles. Prior to joining Oxford, Dr Crockett worked with economists and neuroscientists at the University of Zurich and University College London, studying human decision-making with the support of a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship.

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