Meta-analysis provides new insights on gender differences in responses to moral dilemmas

Men and women make moral decisions differently, according to new research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin — but not necessarily in the ways scientists thought before.

The study, a meta-analysis of 40 studies with 6,100 total participants, revealed a more nuanced distinction between two common schools of moral thought.

Deontology vs. Utilitarianism

“Consider…a dilemma where you are hiding with other townsfolk from murderous soldiers,” says Rebecca Friesdorf, the corresponding author. “Suddenly a baby starts to cry—unless you smother it, the soldiers will find and kill everyone. Should you smother the baby to prevent the soldiers from killing the townsfolk?”

According to deontology, killing the baby would be wrong because murder is wrong, despite the potential consequences. Deontology puts moral norms at top priority.

According to utilitarianism, killing the baby is acceptable because it will save many lives in the end. Utilitarianism considers the overall consequences more important.

Deontology has long been associated with emotional responses to moral dilemmas, while utilitarianism is associated with cognitive, or mental, responses. Previous research has claimed that the two are opposites, and that women make more deontological decisions while men make more utilitarian decisions. However, the current study suggests it’s not so simple.

The Study

The research team, comprised of scientists from three universities in three different countries, believes that deontology and utilitarianism are not necessarily opposites—either thought process could be affected by a number of factors. In order to examine them independently, the team used a method called Process Dissociation (PD) to separate the variables. PD has been used previously to separate other controversial variables, such as racial bias in weapon identification.

“To…distinguish whether men are more utilitarian than women, or women are more deontological than men, it is necessary to measure [these]inclinations independently,” said Friesdorf.

The Results

The findings from the study challenge the traditional theory that men prefer cognitive decisions and women prefer emotional ones.  After separating the variables, researchers discovered that men and women use cognitive reasoning about equally. However, women were much more likely to use emotional reasoning than men when one factor is involved: harm.

When asked a moral dilemma question that did not involve harm, women and men both tended to use utilitarian (or cognitive) thinking. However, when asked a moral dilemma question involving harm, women were significantly more likely to use deontological (emotional) thinking than men.

“The current findings cast doubt on the hypothesis that men and women differ in terms of their cognitive evaluations of outcomes,” according to Friesdorf. “Both men and women are governed by lines of intellect— women: additionally by curves of emotion.”