Recent research reveals a striking gender bias in how people perceive and accept instrumental harm, which occurs when harm is inflicted on some individuals to achieve a greater good. The study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that people tend to be more willing to accept harm to men than to women in various contexts, even when women are traditionally expected to sacrifice more.
Utilitarianism, a moral philosophy that justifies causing harm to some individuals if it leads to a greater overall good, has been the subject of much philosophical debate. It encompasses two key elements: instrumental harm and impartial beneficence. Instrumental harm allows for the harm of innocent individuals for the greater good, while impartial beneficence requires prioritizing the greater good above personal attachments and biases.
Yet, in practice, people often struggle to adhere to these stringent utilitarian principles, frequently deviating from impartiality due to various subjective factors. Judgments about benefit and harm are inherently subjective and can be influenced by personal beliefs and societal norms. This subjectivity, coupled with the challenge of defining the greater good, makes it difficult to reach a consensus on what actions are truly morally justified.
The new study set out to investigate a specific factor that may influence individuals’ impartial evaluation of social interventions – the gender of those experiencing instrumental harm. Building on previous research on gender and moral decision-making, the researchers hypothesized that people might show a bias in supporting interventions that inflict collateral harm on one gender over the other, thus violating the principle of impartial beneficence.
“People’s assumptions of who’s a victim and who’s a perpetrator differs by gender. People tend to stereotype men as perpetrators and women as victims. This project built upon those findings by examining how people evaluate harm, when that harm is unintended and results from interventions aimed at helping people,” explained study author Tania Reynolds, an assistant professor at the the University of New Mexico, in a press release.
“Most policies have trade-offs whereby some individuals are benefitted, and some are either not affected or actively harmed,” Reynolds said. “How do people evaluate these costs? If it’s the case that one gender benefits while the other is harmed, might that influence whether people evaluate the intervention or policy as worthwhile?”
To investigate the gender bias in acceptance of instrumental harm, the researchers conducted a series of three studies.
In the first study, participants were asked to evaluate a workplace intervention designed to reduce mistreatment, which involved instrumental harm to some employees. The researchers recruited 200 American individuals through Amazon’s CloudResearch platform. To ensure a minimum of 75 responses in each condition, 160 participants (67.1% men, average age 34.5) were included in the final analysis.
Participants were presented with an employee intervention program aimed at improving toxic work environments. They were randomly assigned to one of two gender conditions in which either male or female employees experienced instrumental harm due to the program. Participants were asked to evaluate the acceptability of the program.
In particular, they were told that the workplace intervention “reduced reports of mistreatments and it improved work experience for most employees,” but that “[men or women] found the program to be insensitive, demeaning, and offensive,” and “experienced worse psychological outcomes.”
Study 1 found that participants were significantly more willing to accept instrumental harm when men suffered the harm compared to when women did. This gender bias was influenced by the gender of the participant, with female participants showing a greater bias in accepting harm inflicted on men than male participants.
“In this context, people were more supportive of the intervention if men found it offensive than if women found it offensive,” Reynolds said.
Study 2 aimed to replicate the findings of Study 1 using a broader array of contexts. It involved 233 participants (51% men, average age 36.5) recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Participants evaluated five scenarios describing the efficacy of various interventions in areas such as chronic pain management, education, nutrition, psychological well-being, and sexually transmitted infections. Within each scenario, the gender of the group benefiting and experiencing harm was experimentally manipulated.
For example, in the nutrition scenario, the participants were told that men (or women) who drank a weight loss meal replacement shake “once a day for 2 months lost 20% more weight and had 6% lower blood pressure” but that women (or men) who drank the shake once a day “actually gained 10% more weight and their blood pressure slightly increased by 3%.”
Study 2 constructively replicated the findings of Study 1. Participants consistently showed a greater willingness to support interventions benefiting women at the cost of men compared to the reverse scenario. Female participants exhibited a stronger bias in this direction, while male participants did not show a similar bias. Additionally, the study explored the influence of ideological beliefs and found that participants who endorsed feminism or egalitarianism were more supportive of interventions favoring women.
“What we found is that beyond just participants’ sex, people who more strongly endorsed egalitarianism or feminism showed these gender biases to larger degrees,” Reynolds said. “Both of those ideologies have to do with rectifying historical injustices, so maybe it’s part of the reason why people endorse harm to men. Throughout history, women have typically had to sacrifice in contexts like caring for the elderly or infants.”
“Likewise women have not had the same career or educational opportunities. Perhaps people who identify as feminists or egalitarians perceive men to have benefited throughout history, and therefore they now evaluate it as fair if men suffer and women gain an advantage.”
In Study 3, the researchers sought to examine whether the gender bias in accepting instrumental harm could be neutralized in contexts where women have traditionally been expected to sacrifice more than men. The study involved 225 participants (61.7% men, average age 35.1) who evaluated interventions in stereotypically female contexts, such as parenthood, nursing, early childhood education, and elderly care.
Contrary to expectations, Study 3 found that the gender bias in accepting instrumental harm persisted even in contexts where women are traditionally expected to make sacrifices. Both male and female participants were more likely to endorse interventions inflicting harm onto men than women. Exploratory analyses suggested that feminist identification did not predict this bias in this context. However, participants with liberal political ideologies were more likely to accept harm to men.
Together, the findings indicate that people tend to show a gender bias, favoring instrumental harm for men over women in various contexts. This bias appears to be influenced by participant gender, political ideology, and the endorsement of feminist or egalitarian beliefs.
“Throughout history, countless male lives have been sacrificed on the battlefield, ostensibly to promote the greater good,” the researchers concluded. “Our findings suggest that these sentiments persist beyond the field of combat. For many people, accepting instrumental harm to men is perceived as worth the cost to advance other social aims.”
“We invite researchers to further investigate how individuals appraise the value of suffering and whether those appraisals differ across target characteristics. A deeper understanding of the biases embedded in such calculations may minimize the unforeseen and unintended consequences of those preferences, thereby reducing harm to men and women alike.”
However, it is essential to acknowledge some limitations of these studies. The scenarios presented to participants were hypothetical, and real-world decisions may involve more complex factors. Additionally, the studies focused on American participants, and cultural factors may influence moral judgments differently in other regions.
“We had a hard time getting this paper published. It goes to show you have to be resilient and believe in your work,” Reynolds added. “It’s a nice feeling and makes the research worth it–a good reminder persistence pays off.”
The study, “Worth the Risk? Greater Acceptance of Instrumental Harm Befalling Men than Women“, was authored by Maja Graso, Tania Reynolds, and Karl Aquino.