New Way Trolley Problem Shows We’re Awful

New Way Trolley Problem Shows We’re Awful


Tiffany Sun, a student at Rosyln High School in New York, was one of 40 finalists in the 2015 Intel Science Talent Search with an experimental philosophy project on the Trolley Problem. That’s the good news. The bad news? What she learned. From an article at Cogito.org:

Tiffany said the first step to conducting her research was coming up with experimental stimuli to apply to the traditional logical problem. “I manipulated the characteristics of the lone person on the track,” she says. “I used descriptions of variables—[physical] attractiveness, socio-economic status or wealth, and [having a physical] disability.”…

Tiffany’s results showed that the participants were more like to sacrifice (kill) the person on the alternative track if that person was described as poor (low SES), disabled, or unattractive. Attractive, well-off, and people without disabilities were less likely to be sacrificed to save the five people on the other track.  The highest sacrifice rate was for the disabled person, at 74 percent. The next highest was for the plain woman, at 69 percent…

Tiffany notes that to her, one of the most interesting gender difference that emerged was that men chose to sacrifice plain women at a rate of 82 percent, while women sacrificed the plain woman only 52 percent of the time.

You can read more about Ms. Sun’s experiment, which involved 300 survey respondents, in the Cogito.org articleStudent Science, and at The Island is Now.

Ms. Sun first learned about the trolley problem in a summer logic course she took from the Center for Talented Youth (CTY), between 9th and 10th grade. So an alternate version of this story could be headlined: “Early Exposure to Philosophy Influences Young Woman’s Choice of Science Project.” Not an unimportant point!

UPDATE: Technically, “the trolley problem” has come to refer to an apparent incongruity in most people’s judgments about what to do in a pair of cases, “bystander” and “footbridge.” Ms. Sun’s research seems to have employed only one of these cases, “bystander,” and so, on this more technical usage, it is a mistake to report her as having worked on “the trolley problem.”  I did not point this out in the OP as I thought it was tangential to the main point of the post and a bit pedantic,but since a couple of people mentioned this on FB and email, and since this post seems to be getting shared a bit, I suppose I should not miss the opportunity to note this point. And while we’re at it, let me tell you what “begging the question” really means, kids…

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