Your morality could make you more or less desirable as a long-term partner, according to new research. The study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, found that women preferred men who made rule-based decisions rather than consequence-based decisions — at least in the context of committed relationships.
The research compared deontological ethics with utilitarian ethics. The former judges decisions based on their conformity to a consistent moral rule while the latter judges decisions based on their overall outcomes.
The contrast between the two approaches is often examined with the so-called Trolley Problem: If there’s an out of control trolley speeding towards a group of five people, is it ethical to throw a single bystander on the tracks to stop the train? Should you kill one person to save five? A deontologist would say no. A utilitarian would say yes.
“Contrary to popular belief in my department, this has nothing to do with trolley problem memes! I became interested in morality after reading about the signaling function of moral decision-making, or how deontology communicates prosociality, whereas utilitarianism communicates competence,” said study author Mitchell Brown, a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“Great research done in general affiliative domains was occurring, but I felt the extant literature lacked a discussion on morality from a mating perspective. Prosocial behavior provides downstream information about one’s ability as a mate (e.g., being kind to infants in public), so it made sense to determine how morality connotes a wealth of information.”
“A dual-processes theory of morality provided an excellent framework for this research, as it addresses the adaptive benefits of deontology and utilitarianism to show the contexts that either would be appropriate, similarly to how different traits are only desirable in certain mating contexts (e.g., dominant men in short-term mating capacities),” Brown said. “I felt compelled to fill the gap in the literature.”
In two studies, with a total of 214 female participants, the researchers found that women preferred a man who made deontological decisions as a long-term partner.
“Although one type of morality isn’t inherently better than the other, moral decisions can represent a tradeoff based on what types of goals are salient,” Brown told PsyPost.
However, the researchers found that men who made deontological decisions were viewed as undesirable for short-term relationships.
“Although our research indicates deontology is desirable in long-term mating contexts, the traits associated with deontology (e.g., rule adherence, communicated benevolence) may not be of primary concern for short-term mating contexts, a context that prioritizes good genes and agentic behavior,” Brown said.
The study also found that women viewed men who made utilitarian decision as more prone to infidelity than men who made deontological decisions.
“What we desire in a mate’s behavior is largely contingent on the context in which we desire that mate, whether it be a committed relationship or a one-night stand,” Brown explained to PsyPost. “The truly interesting part of these studies is that the deontological participants were the ones who were especially sensitive to what moral decision-makings communicate, perhaps an outgrowth of their greater interest social living compared to utilitarians.”
Brown acknowledged the study had some caveats and limitations.
“The biggest caveat really is trying to understand the desirability of utilitarianism; although not truly desirable in either context, utilitarianism was more desirable than deontology in short-term mating contexts,” he told PsyPost. “This could be part of a methodological limitation and future research could potentially have participants respond to an ipsative scale of preferences to tap the tradeoffs more directly.”
“Remember that the morality of a target can be assessed in a capacity not limited to decisions in a trolley dilemma. Such a dilemma is a great proxy but other types of information may prove just as valuable.”
“A strength of this paper is that it includes converging evidence of how decisions in a trolley dilemma communicate similar things to how a description of morality without discussing the manner in which people meet their demise. Creativity in morality research is a must.”
The study, “Is pulling the lever sexy? Deontology as a downstream cue to long-term mate quality“, was co-authored by Donald F. Sacco.t