The idea behind the “drunk utilitarian” is that alcohol biases people toward judgements that align more closely with utilitarian ethics. Utilitarianism suggests that the best course of action is the one that maximizes good and minimizes harm. Interestingly, a new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin did not find evidence for the “drunk utilitarian” phenomenon.
“We were intrigued by the famous classical study of Duke and Bègue (2015), who tested participants in pubs and showed that more drunk people made more utilitarian decisions on the example of trolley problems,” said study author Mariola Paruzel-Czachura, PhD (@Mariola87880133), a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate professor at the University of Silesia in Katowice.
“We wanted to replicate these results, but we aimed to conduct a laboratory study with a placebo condition on a well-powered sample.”
In this research, Paruzel-Czachura and colleagues addressed five limitations of prior work looking at the effects of alcohol; these limitations include low or inconsistent levels of alcohol, a placebo condition, small sample size, confounds in measuring moral judgements, and “generalization to utilitarian judgments writ large based on responses to sacrificial dilemmas.”
A total of 329 participants between the ages 18-52 were involved in this research; 106 participants were assigned to the alcohol condition, 114 to the placebo control condition, and 109 to the no-alcohol control condition. There were approximately the same number of men and women in each condition.
Those in the no-alcohol condition were served juice and were told there was no alcohol in their drink. Those in the placebo condition were likewise served juice but were told there was alcohol in their drink; however, the drink was sprayed with alcohol to be more convincing of an alcoholic beverage. Participants in the alcohol condition consumed a drink that contained “1.6 grams of alcohol at 40% strength for each 1 kg of the participant’s body weight” which was mixed with the same juice used in other conditions.
Participants began the study by having their weight and blood alcohol level measured (via breathalyzer). They completed a demographic survey, then consumed their assigned drink. Next, they watched two neutral clips for 51 minutes to allow enough time for alcohol absorption. Blood alcohol levels were measured once more.
Participants completed a series of 48 dilemmas from a validated battery using the CNI model, which involves four versions of 12 basic dilemmas that vary as a function “(a) whether the benefits of the described action are greater or smaller than the costs, and (b) whether the described action is prohibited or prescribed by a moral norm.” The CNI model gives rise to three scores, including “sensitivity to consequences (C parameter), a score reflecting sensitivity to moral norms (N parameter), and a score reflecting general preference for inaction versus action (I parameter).”
Participants also completed the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale (OUS), which measures the dimensions of Impartial Beneficence and Instrumental Harm, providing ratings on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The order of these two measures was counterbalanced. Next, they responded to the switch and footbridge dilemmas indicating whether they would do nothing or act (i.e., pull switch, push man) on a scale of 1 to 7. These two dilemmas were also counterbalanced. Lastly, participants completed the cognitive reflection test (CRT) and some supplementary measures. The study ended with a debrief and final measurement of blood alcohol levels. Participants were given a chance to guess which condition they had been assigned to.
I asked the researcher what the average person should take away from this study. Paruzel-Czachura responded, “That alcohol (average blood alcohol concentration in permille was 0.69) did not impact our participants’ moral judgments.”
Despite the research team’s efforts to address the limitations in prior work exploring the effect of alcohol on moral judgements, they did not find any significant effects in the present study. They only observed a weak placebo-driven effect on the OUS measure. While participants’ performance on the CRT was higher in the alcohol (vs. no-alcohol) condition, this was also the case for those in the placebo condition, suggesting that participants who believed they had consumed alcohol tried harder on the CRT.
The authors write, “Together, these results pose a challenge to the ‘drunk utilitarian’ phenomenon and raise important questions about how alcohol may influence moral judgments, if it has any such effect at all.”
“There is still a possibility that with different levels of alcohol, moral decisions, and judgments could change. We need more studies to understand if and how alcohol impacts morality,” Paruzel-Czachura said.
Are there questions that still need answers? The researcher said, “Does alcohol impact different moral issues? For example, immoral behaviors? Should people be sentenced for crimes committed under the influence of alcohol differently than when sober?”
She added, “It was a time-consuming study, but our team had a great time. We loved working on such a timely and important problem in the laboratory.”
The study, “The Drunk Utilitarian Revisited: Does Alcohol Really Increase Utilitarianism in Moral Judgment?” was authored by Mariola Paruzel-Czachura, Katarzyna Pypno, Jim A. C. Everett, Michał Białek, and Bertram Gawronski.