Harm aversion explains utilitarian choices in moral decision-making in males but not in females

G. Rota, S. Palumbo, N. Lattanzi, A. Manfrinati, M. Sarlo, L. Lotto, P. Pietrini, R. Rumiati, S. Pellegrini


In recent years, a great deal of research has relied on hypothetical sacrificial dilemmas to investigate decision-making processes involved in pro-social utilitarian choices. Recent evidence, however, has suggested that moral sacrificial choices may actually reflect reduced harm aversion and antisocial dispositions rather than an utilitarian inclination. Here, we used moral dilemmas to confront healthy volunteers with controversial action choices. We measured impulsiveness and venturesomeness personality traits, which have been shown to influence harm aversion, to test their role in utilitarian action and evaluation of moral acceptability. The results of the present study show that, in males, venturesomeness drives engagement in actions and increases moral acceptability. In contrast, in females no effects of venturesomeness were observed on moral action and evaluation. Rather, in females empathetic concern and personal distress, elicited by the vicarious experience of the other’s emotional states, exerted an inhibitory effect on action. Taken together, these findings indicate that the “harm aversion hypothesis” may contribute to explain utilitarian choices in males but not in females. In both genders, no association was observed between impulsiveness and moral action.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.4449/aib.v154i2/3.4551


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