Smartphones Changing Our Way To Make Moral Decisions

The first study to discover the impact of the digital age on moral judgments.


The use of a smartphone for each and every task is rising day by day. Even, people are using it for making moral decisions too. But, a new study suggests that smartphone users are more likely to take rational and unemotional decisions.

This is the first study into the impact of the digital age on moral judgments. It suggests moral judgments depend on the digital context. It could have significant implications for how we interact with computers or smartphones.

The study conducted by the scientists at the City University of London investigates how moral decisions are affected by smartphones and PCs. For that purpose, they involved 1,010 people and presented them with a classic moral dilemma known as the ‘Trolley Problem’.

The key characteristics of moral judgments involve deontological versus utilitarian decisions. The deontological judgments are generally automatic or intuitive by the emotional content of a given dilemma. At the other hand, utilitarian responses are the result of unemotional or rational/controlled reflection by conscious evaluation of the different potential outcomes.

Scientists then told a story of the trolley problem to participants. There is a runaway trolley traveling quickly down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move and the trolley is headed straight for them. They are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever and that if you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, they are also told that there is one person on the side track.

After that, scientists asked participants to either do nothing. The trolley kills the five people on the main track. If pulling the lever, it diverts the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

In this condition, participants decided to sacrifice one man by pulling the switch then to do nothing and let five people die (80.9 percent for the Smartphone users; 76.9 percent for the PC users).

Scientists again conduct another scenario. That was the ‘fat man’ version of the dilemma. The runaway trolley is again heading toward five innocent victims. Here, instead of you and a fat man are standing on a footbridge overlooking the track. Now, the participants are told that they can spare the lives of the five people if they push the fat man off the bridge onto the tracks below, stopping the trolley.

In this scenario, participants were more likely to prefer sacrificing the fat man when using (33.5 percent for the smartphone users and 22.3 percent for the PC users).

As a result, the study suggests that even under conditions of time pressure, some digital contexts. For example, such as using a smartphone could trigger utilitarian decision-making.

Dr Albert Barque-Duran, University of London said, “What we found in our study is that when people used a smartphone to view classic moral problems, they were more likely to make more unemotional, rational decisions when presented with a highly emotional dilemma. This could be due to the increased time pressures often present with smartphones and also the increased psychological distance which can occur when we use such devices compared to PCs.”

“Due to the fact that our social lives, work, and even shopping take place online, it is important to think about how the contexts where we typically face ethical decisions and are asked to engage in moral behaviour have changed, and the impact this could have on the hundreds of millions of people who use such devices daily.”

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