According to a study published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the Yali – a traditional indigenous, non-Western society in the remote Yalimo valley in Papua, Indonesia – are significantly less willing than Western individuals to sacrifice one person to save five others. This finding suggests that utilitarian moral judgements to the trolley dilemma are likely mediated by sociocultural factors.
“Morality dominates many aspects of our everyday decision-making. We are willing to forego even considerable benefits if only we judge the required act as immoral. So, understanding how we form moral judgments is critical to understand how we decide, and think of ways to improve it,” said Michał Białek (@mbialek82), an associate professor at the University of Wrocław.
To date, most studies presenting the trolley dilemma have failed to consider the role of culture, often generalizing findings from Western populations to other populations, reflecting a moral absolutist view that moral judgements and culture or context are independent of each other.
“Cross-cultural studies are important to know what is universal, and what is culture-driven in our understanding of morality. And this is what we’ve done with this project,” Białek added.
The researchers recruited Yali people of Papua (109 individuals) and Canadians residing in Alberta (95 individuals), who represented non-WEIRD (i.e., Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) and WEIRD populations respectively. The Yali follow a traditional way of life, using land cultivation as the primary means of subsistence, sometimes supported by hunting and gathering. Further, their society is polygamous and male-dominated. The Canadian participants represented an industrialized Western population.
A modified, and more ecologically valid scenario of the trolley dilemma was presented, given the Yali’s unfamiliarity with trolleys and railways. Instead of a trolley, this scenario featured a collapsing tree. With the assistance of an interpreter, participants were asked to indicate whether they would push the tree to save five people, making the tree fall on one person and causing their death, or whether they would do nothing and let the tree collapse on all five people, resulting in their death.
“Remote tribes of Yali in Papua differ significantly from Canadians in how they make moral judgments. Contrary to Canadians, they would rather let many people die than actively sacrifice fewer people instead. For Yali, being consistent with universal rules is far more important than the direct outcome of an act,” Białek told PsyPost.
Compared with Canadians, the odds of Yali participants pushing the falling tree onto one person to save five others was 73% smaller. The researchers argue these findings reflect cultural differences between the two populations, which is evident in the explanations provided by Papuans immediately after the experiment.
First, given the harsh consequences of causing another’s death in Yali society, participants were unwilling to expose themselves to potential trouble by taking action; the accused would be killed, and the extended family of the blamed individual, and even their village, would be in danger of death. “This is because the relatives of the deceased person are obliged to compensate for the wrongdoing by killing the same or a greater number of persons,” the authors wrote.
The second most common explanation concerned religion, with Yali often arguing “that people should not interfere with the divine decision about someone’s life and death.”
Białek noted a potential limitation. “We have no idea what was driving the differences. It could be that Yali indeed are strongly attached to fixed and robust moral rules. However, they also mentioned they are afraid of the revenge the relatives of the sacrificed person would seek – on the agent, but possibly also on the family, or even the entire village. So, the reason to refuse to act could also be a cold calculation of the benefits to others versus costs to the self and own family.”
“Shortly after our study, Winking & Koster found that a different remote tribe, this time from Nicaragua, showed a totally reversed pattern of responses – they strongly endorsed a required sacrifice to save more people. We need to understand the reasoning behind the cultural variability in forming moral judgments. And it seems to be harder than we thought,” Białek said.
The study, “Trolley Dilemma in Papua. Yali horticulturalists refuse to pull the lever”, was authored by Michalina Marczak, Michał Misiak, Michał Białek, and Piotr Sorokowski.