communication skills empathy philosophy psychology

How you answer the trolley problem can affect your romantic prospects

In a recently published study by Brown and Sacco (2017),[1] how others answered a classic moral dilemma affected how participants saw them in three areas: how suitable they were for a long-term relationship, how desirable they were, and how likely they were to stray. This dilemma is called the trolley problem, first introduced in 1967 by philosopher Philippa Foot, and has been so widely discussed and researched in moral philosophy and other disciplines that it is now an area of study in itself, trolleyology.

The trolley problem[2]

Version 1: Imagine a runaway trolley is headed for five people who will be killed if it continues along a track. The only way to save them is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley onto an alternate set of tracks where it will kill one person instead of five. Should you hit the switch in order to save the five people at the expense of one?

Trolley_problem wikipedia

Version 2: As before, a trolley threatens to kill five people. You are standing next to a large man on a footbridge above the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. The only way to save the five people is to push the man off the bridge, onto the tracks below. He will die if you do this, but his body will stop the trolley from reaching the others. Should you save the five others by pushing this man to his death?

Two approaches to moral decision-making

Moral reasoning can be divided into two approaches. When we try to decide whether an action is moral or not, we either focus on the intrinsic nature of the act e.g. “stealing is inherently wrong” or on the consequences “e.g. how many people will suffer as a result of this action?” The first is called deontology and the second utilitarianism. Faced with  morally ambiguous scenarios, such as whether it is wrong to steal when you are penniless and starving, the deontologist might say “No, it is always wrong to steal” and “the ends don’t justify the means”. The utilitarian might say “While it is bad for society if people steal, in this case the negative consequences of stealing are less than dying of starvation, and so it is OK to steal”. There are of course more nuanced versions of both positions, and these are often brought out during a vigorous and thorough discussion of the trolley problems.

Go and discuss the trolley problems

At this point, you should discuss the trolley problems above with a friend, and decide whether you are a deontologist or a utilitarian or a bit of both. Later, you will reflect on your argument style.

Utilitarians often use a cost-benefit analysis to decide on balance which action will produce the least suffering. It can seem very impersonal to quantify suffering in terms of numbers of people, the length and strength of their suffering, and even factors such as the age and usefulness of the potential sufferers. They may therefore appear cold and calculating, even if they are just enjoying the deconstruction of a hypothetical scenario.

Deontologists, on the other hand, come across as more benevolent and trustworthy than utilitarianism, according to a recent study by Everett et al (2016)[3]. Participants were more likely to trust them with money under experimental conditions. Their choices may appear to be more based on emotion or loyalty to tradition or a religious system. They are seen as warm (but less competent)[4] and likeable. Since, as Brown and Sacco (2017) argue, benevolence and trustworthiness are sought after characteristics for long-term relationships, this study indicates that we need to be careful about the impression we give when answering light-hearted philosophical dilemmas on dates. They found that deontologists were seen by both men and women as more suitable for a long-term relationship, and by women as less likely to cheat, and more desirable. (Interestingly, deontologists were more sensitive to these effects than utilitarians.)

What can you learn from discussing moral dilemmas on dates?

I’ve always recommended discussing moral dilemmas on dates as a way of finding out more about the other person. (You can buy my dating questions here – there are lots of fun moral dilemmas!) They will reveal their argument style, their politics, whether they lean more towards the cooperative or the competitive, whether they are altruistic, whether they are governed more by their head or their heart, how good they are at listening, whether they are flexible enough to change their mind once they’ve heard your water-tight arguments, and generally how intelligent they are. (And of course whether they like discussing philosophy.) Think back to your discussion of the trolley problems – how would you rate yourself on the above?! What do you need to work at? Are you giving the right impression of yourself?


Come across as nuanced, not one-sided

In Everett et al’s 2016 experiments, those who found their decision to kill in the trolley problem difficult were judged as more trustworthy than those who found it easy.[5] So arguing as though your decision is straightforward might be good in your workplace (negotiating a business deal or winning a court case, say), but it won’t work so well on your date. Trust is crucial to building a relationship, especially if you’ve met online and know nothing about each other. You should show that you understand the complexities of both sides of the argument and not come to a conclusion too quickly.

We all need to work on arguing in a light-hearted, attractive way

The problem is that we can often be a bit facetious, tongue-in-cheek or play devil’s advocate in these kind of discussions. We may want to show off our oratory skills or impress with some philosophical vocabulary. We may argue too seriously or aggressively. So be careful to get a balance between warmth and competence – and make sure you listen carefully to your date’s arguments and show you value and respect them. It’s not about winning the argument on a date – it’s about displaying the best version of yourself. Keep smiling, don’t get worked up, don’t be scornful, don’t interrupt, acknowledge the other point of view, don’t be patronising. Often the first proper argument between two people is what finishes off a budding relationship, because we revert to how we argue with people we know very well, or with fellow philosophers or technicians in the workplace. Light-hearted polite disagreement is a real skill, and one that we can all work on.

heartsickness-428103 pixabay

If you are interested in working on your argument style, contact me here to arrange a consultation. I’ve got lots of good strategies for avoiding conflict and managing disagreements in all contexts!

 Rachel New (2)

[1] Brown, M., & Sacco, D. F. (2017). Is pulling the lever sexy? Deontology as a downstream cue to long-term mate quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication.


[3] Everett, J. A., Pizarro, D. A., & Crockett, M. J. (2016). Inference of trustworthiness from intuitive moral judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 772–787.

[4] Rom, S. C., Weiss, A., & Conway, P. (2017). Judging those who judge: Perceivers infer the roles of affect and cognition underpinning others’ moral dilemma responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 69, 44-58.


3 thoughts on “How you answer the trolley problem can affect your romantic prospects”

  1. Legally you would be responsible for the one death if you touched the switch, but not the five deaths if you didn’t.
    It’s the difference between observing an accident and participating in a murder.
    Five ex-partners or one potential new date?!

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