Testosterone and the Trolley Problem
July 23, 2019 5:20 PM   Subscribe

Testosterone influences both emotions and decision-making, so what about it's influence on decisions made by people weighing moral issues? A team of researchers from the University of Austin found it doesn't seem to do much. (Ars Technica)

The hypotheses were based on previous suggestions that testosterone would make people less empathetic and therefore more likely to choose a purely utilitarian solution, minimizing the total number of deaths. They also hypothesized that people given testosterone would prefer taking action, which would bias them toward changing the status quo.

To test these hypotheses, they got 200 volunteers and randomly assigned some to receive a boost of testosterone, while the rest got a placebo. The participants were then asked to consider a moral dilemma and come to some decision on what they felt the right course of action was.


Nature Human Behavior, 2019. DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0641-3

OSF materials: Exogenous Testosterone Increases Sensitivity to Moral Norms in Moral Dilemma Judgments
posted by Outside Context Problem (24 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, as someone who takes exogenous testosterone regularly, and is all too familiar with the fears and stereotypes people express about what will happen to the personalities of those who gender transition using testosterone, I feel zero surprise, I must say.

Testosterone, like all hormones, has real biological effects! But our society is so invested in an essentialist, patriarchal, binary gender ideology that people believe testosterone causes a ridiculous range of gigantic, multicausal phenomena: power, competitiveness, strength, callousness, violence--everything people love and hate about masculinity. Those who love patriarchy want testosterone to define an eternal male power that must be deferred to. For essentialist feminists who see women as innately less problematic than men, testosterone is instead the cooties hormone that makes people abusive, impulsive, and smelly.

People naturalize a set of gender relations and stereotypes that are very historically and culturally specific and deem them eternal effects of a hormone. It's pretty eyerolly. It makes as much sense as saying capitalism is caused by insulin or socialism by melatonin.

I can tell you that I personally am a much calmer and less angry person now that I was under my prior load of progesterone and estrogen. I did not lose my empathy. I did not become more competitive; if anything, I because less so. I did not lose interest in complex moral reasoning. I did not become more enamored of beer. I did not lose the ability to coordinate colors. I did not decide feminism is a load of hooey.

I did get a lot hairier though.
posted by DrMew at 7:31 PM on July 23, 2019 [95 favorites]


And also: It's almost as if trolley problems are unrealistic and stupid don't actually have much to do with any sort of everyday emotions or decision making.
posted by eviemath at 8:39 PM on July 23, 2019 [5 favorites]


We all better hope it doesn't make that much of a difference, because when I listen to sports radio (in Seattle!) for a couple of hours on any given day, I must hear about 7 or 8 ads from 3 distinct clinics offering treatment for "low T", and at least 2 of them specifically mention "first responders" (when I first heard them, I'd swear they talked about police directly) and the special deal they have for them — but they sure as hell imply that it *will* make a difference in how you act.
posted by jamjam at 11:33 PM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


The trolley problem is a staple of ethics courses is the first line of the article. If trolley problem were so simply stupid and irrelevant, then all ethics courses are broken. Like, I'm not strictly opposed to that as a possibility (the corruption of academic ethics), but is that really how we want to frame this at the outset?

I am not a philosopher but my understanding of abstract dilemmas is that they are largely intellectual tools. Demanding that such abstractions have literal or direct relevance to people's lives… is kind of an attitude that philosophy generally tries to challenge and deconstruct.
posted by polymodus at 12:24 AM on July 24, 2019 [8 favorites]


As for the study, the requirement is empirically showing whether Trolley Problem or Kobayashi Maru and so forth have some correlation with people's attitudes and choices in general. In this context, it does not even matter if we speculate on the reasons of why these notions are realistic or not, they're trying to do science so if they find an empirical connection then that's a justification. As I understand it, inventories and metrics are kind of like that—the literal, semantic part of the questions on a survey has no meaning at all, it's the pattern of responses to a psychological inventory that correlate with some behavior of interest.
posted by polymodus at 12:31 AM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately this doesn’t address the prisoner’s trolley problemma at all.
posted by fyolnish at 12:54 AM on July 24, 2019 [17 favorites]


The real answer is to pull the lever while the trolley is on top the switch, thereby derailing it and increasing the chances that everybody onboard will die, while also still having a good probability of killing the people on the track in the resulting crash. The rail company, who by this point have caused a runaway trolley, failed to prevent trespassers on the tracks and left a vital railway lever unguarded where just any fool could give it a yank, is almost certainly going be punitively judged by the courts and will end up having to pay you a squillion bucks in compensation for your emotional distress.

These philosophical problems are easy.
posted by Eleven at 3:29 AM on July 24, 2019 [5 favorites]


the comments on that prisoner's trolley problem link are gold
posted by kokaku at 4:31 AM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]


but is that really how we want to frame this at the outset?

I can't speak for anyone else, but yes, that's my opinion.

The trolley problem is a staple of ethics courses ... my understanding of abstract dilemmas is that they are largely intellectual tools. Demanding that such abstractions have literal or direct relevance to people's lives… is kind of an attitude that philosophy generally tries to challenge and deconstruct.

Exactly my beef with the trolley problem: abstract ethics is a category error.
posted by eviemath at 5:05 AM on July 24, 2019 [3 favorites]


First, assume that the moral universe is a sphere.
posted by cardboard at 6:13 AM on July 24, 2019 [9 favorites]


It's very nice to see negative results both published academically and reported in the popular press. That attention has the potential to improve science.

It certainly wasn't a bad hypothesis (testosterone has been found, for example, to affect stock trading behavior), but checking hypotheses with experiments is, y'know, science.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:17 AM on July 24, 2019 [7 favorites]


It's almost as if trolley problems are unrealistic and stupid

Well, no, we all face this problem daily. Consider our use of plastics. We know that plastics will find their way into the environment and cause harm, but we use them anyway, in part because the harm is so distant and abstract we don't give it any weight.

Consider Richard Matheson's Button, Button. Is this a "realistic" story? I say yes, since this bargain, death for economic reward, is more or less the platform of a major political party.
posted by SPrintF at 7:46 AM on July 24, 2019 [3 favorites]


I think trolley problems are unrealistic and stupid because there is no way, if someone were put into the actual situation the trolley problem describes, that they would go through the same emotions or thought processes that people have when they are sitting in a chair talking about the trolley problem.
posted by Quonab at 8:10 AM on July 24, 2019 [5 favorites]


The trolley problem is easy, give me any trolley problem and I can solve it instantly no need to even think about it. Just try me.

This study seems interesting, I had to correct some of my ideas about testosterone today because of it. I hope they experiment some more, maybe with a less abstract problem, presenting them with something goofy like an abstract thought experiment doesn't really test much conclusively I feel. Is there no way to use actors or something to stage a real moral dilemma for someone to solve?
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:28 AM on July 24, 2019


The most surprising part of this story is that someone managed to get a negative result published in a major journal.
posted by automatronic at 8:46 AM on July 24, 2019 [8 favorites]


The issue with moral analogies like the trolley problem is that they reveal our ethics about the specific analogy yet are frequently assumed to reveal general principles. The answer to the trolley problem is different from the answer to the fat man problem, because train-related ethics is different from cliff-related ethics. Details matter. For a study like this one, that's fine. For other purposes that can be a huge problem.
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 8:57 AM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]


They also hypothesized that people given testosterone would prefer taking action, which would bias them toward changing the status quo.

I mean, have they met men?
posted by tobascodagama at 10:04 AM on July 24, 2019 [8 favorites]


As someone who has lived with a wide variety of hormonal configurations over the course of my life and has therefore reflected a whole lot about hormones and their effect on human behavior, I can say with some confidence that this line of inquiry is kind of bullshit. Okay, so they divided people into "low" and "high" testosterone groups from the outset. There's a linking assumption built into the methodology that accepts as a given that there's a straightforward (let alone linear?) path from blood concentrations of (free? dunno haven't read the paper yet) testosterone into behavior.

Like this is something that really bothers me about between-group/between-subject hormone studies. Tissues respond to hormonal input in wildly different ways; even something like hirsuteness has a wildly complex relationship with testosterone (of course between people, but also in different areas of the skin within the same person). Human behavior is an extremely complex system; I have my doubts that we will ever come close to understanding it in its full complexity. And to assume that there is some cut-and-dry relationship between a single hormone and LITERALLY one of the most complex behaviors we engage in (moral quandaries are, after all, quandaries) just seems like the peak of hubris to me.

The one thing I can say definitively about testosterone is that I was a lot hornier. That's literally it.
posted by baptismal at 10:16 AM on July 24, 2019 [4 favorites]


I always like the color sliders where you can use 3 sliders to produce a vast range of colors. I figure brain chemistry has more components and is therefore more complex and subtle. It also seems that exposure to hormones at various stages before and after birth has a significant effect.

Having a better understanding of how hormones work would probably have a bunch of benefits.
posted by theora55 at 6:22 PM on July 24, 2019


Asking people to make a choice on the trolley problem, in its many forms, feels unethical. You are always asking them to consider causing harm.
posted by theora55 at 6:26 PM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]


Well, no, we all face this problem daily. Consider our use of plastics. We know that plastics will find their way into the environment and cause harm, but we use them anyway, in part because the harm is so distant and abstract we don't give it any weight.

I thought the point of the trolley problem was to study how people respond when forced to make abstracted ethical decisions. It doesn't seem like the right comparison for decisions that are made implicitly by not thinking about them, unless that's your point.

Trolley problem sort of stuff seems to me like a legitimate tool to frame the kind of life or death decisions that are made at that kind of remove. What it may not be, ironically, is a great model for what a realistic split-second choice looks like.
posted by atoxyl at 8:10 PM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]


Well, no, we all face this problem daily. Consider our use of plastics. We know that plastics will find their way into the environment and cause harm, but we use them anyway, in part because the harm is so distant and abstract we don't give it any weight.

There is a specific harm trade-off between the two options you are given in a trolley problem (harm a loved one versus harm a greater number of strangers - quantity versus quality in the domain of human relationships), and both options theoretically would have pretty immediate consequences in the trolley universe. There is no to negligible harm in me using a reusable utensil or bottle or bag or whatever instead of a plastic one. And although I guess in some circumstances you could say that a store-provided plastic bag is a "stranger" relative to some canvas bag that I've had for a long time and like the design of, the canvas bag isn't ever going to reach the status of "loved one" - it's still just a tool that I use, not a being who I have any sort of even potential relationship with. These two are not equivalent situations.

posted by eviemath at 5:52 AM on July 25, 2019


> "The trolley problem is easy, give me any trolley problem and I can solve it instantly no need to even think about it. Just try me."

You've got a little boy. He shows you his trolley collection plus the killing jar.

You're watching television. Suddenly you realize there's a trolley crawling on your arm.

You're reading a magazine. You come across a full page nude photo of a trolley. You show it to your husband. He likes it so much he hangs it on your bedroom wall.

You're in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down and you see a trolley. The trolley lays on its back, baking in the hot sun, trying to turn itself over but it can't, not without your help, but you're not helping. Why is that, GoblinHoney?

Describe in single words only the good things that come in to your mind about your trolley.
posted by kyrademon at 6:43 AM on July 25, 2019 [6 favorites]


Ah great, more trolley problems
posted by cantor.paradise at 1:33 AM on July 26, 2019


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