The trolley problem and your love life

At last …. moral philosophy meets the psychology of dating …. Two of my favourite areas of research!

A recently published study by Brown and Sacco (2017) in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships[1] showed that how suitable you are seen for a long-term relationship, how desirable you are, and how likely you are to stray are all affected by your answer to the famous trolley problem.

This dilemma is called the trolley problem, first introduced in 1967 by philosopher Philippa Foot, and has been so widely discussed and researched in moral philosophy and other disciplines that it is now an area of study in itself, trolleyology.

The trolley problem[2]

Version 1: Imagine a runaway trolley is headed for five people who will be killed if it continues along a track. The only way to save them is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley onto an alternate set of tracks where it will kill one person instead of five. Should you hit the switch in order to save the five people at the expense of one?

Version 2: As before, a trolley threatens to kill five people. You are standing next to a large man on a footbridge above the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. The only way to save the five people is to push the man off the bridge, onto the tracks below. He will die if you do this, but his body will stop the trolley from reaching the others. Should you save the five others by pushing this man to his death?

There are two main approaches to this kind of moral dilemma. One is utilitarian and the other deontological. Utilitarianism is based on the consequences of our actions, and involves a cost-benefit analysis. Deontology is based on the inherent goodness/badness of the action. It is rule-based — “Thou shalt not kill”. Which one do you think is more likely to improve how you are perceived by others for long-term dating?

To find out, please visit my full blog post here. You’ll also get tips on how to argue about the trolley problem with your date in a way that is not going to put them off — a crucial skill that we can all improve on. Just try discussing the dilemma with someone right now and you’ll see what I mean …..

[1] Brown, M., & Sacco, D. F. (2017). Is pulling the lever sexy? Deontology as a downstream cue to long-term mate quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication.


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