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Trolleys, triage and Covid-19: the role of psychological realism in sacrificial dilemmas


Kneer, Markus; Hannikainen, Ivar R (2022). Trolleys, triage and Covid-19: the role of psychological realism in sacrificial dilemmas. Cognition and Emotion, 36(1):137-153.

Abstract

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, frontline medical professionals at intensive care units around the world faced gruesome decisions about how to ration life-saving medical resources. These events provided a unique lens through which to understand how the public reasons about real-world dilemmas involving trade-offs between human lives. In three studies (total N = 2298), we examined people’s moral attitudes toward the triage of acute coronavirus patients, and found elevated support for utilitarian triage policies. These utilitarian tendencies did not stem from period change in moral attitudes relative to pre-pandemic levels–but rather, from the heightened realism of triage dilemmas. Participants favoured utilitarian resolutions of critical care dilemmas when compared to structurally analogous, non-medical dilemmas–and such support was rooted in prosocial dispositions, including empathy and impartial beneficence. Finally, despite abundant evidence of political polarisation surrounding Covid-19, moral views about critical care triage differed modestly, if at all, between liberals and conservatives. Taken together, our findings highlight people’s robust support for utilitarian measures in the face of a global public health threat, and illustrate how the dominant methods in moral psychology (e.g. trolley cases) may deliver insights that do not generalise to real-world moral dilemmas.

Abstract

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, frontline medical professionals at intensive care units around the world faced gruesome decisions about how to ration life-saving medical resources. These events provided a unique lens through which to understand how the public reasons about real-world dilemmas involving trade-offs between human lives. In three studies (total N = 2298), we examined people’s moral attitudes toward the triage of acute coronavirus patients, and found elevated support for utilitarian triage policies. These utilitarian tendencies did not stem from period change in moral attitudes relative to pre-pandemic levels–but rather, from the heightened realism of triage dilemmas. Participants favoured utilitarian resolutions of critical care dilemmas when compared to structurally analogous, non-medical dilemmas–and such support was rooted in prosocial dispositions, including empathy and impartial beneficence. Finally, despite abundant evidence of political polarisation surrounding Covid-19, moral views about critical care triage differed modestly, if at all, between liberals and conservatives. Taken together, our findings highlight people’s robust support for utilitarian measures in the face of a global public health threat, and illustrate how the dominant methods in moral psychology (e.g. trolley cases) may deliver insights that do not generalise to real-world moral dilemmas.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:01 Faculty of Theology and the Study of Religion > Center for Ethics
06 Faculty of Arts > Institute of Philosophy
Dewey Decimal Classification:170 Ethics
Scopus Subject Areas:Social Sciences & Humanities > Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
Social Sciences & Humanities > Developmental and Educational Psychology
Social Sciences & Humanities > Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
Uncontrolled Keywords:Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous), Developmental and Educational Psychology, Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
Language:English
Date:2 January 2022
Deposited On:30 Dec 2021 07:47
Last Modified:17 Jun 2024 03:33
Publisher:Taylor & Francis
ISSN:0269-9931
OA Status:Green
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2021.1964940
Project Information:
  • : FunderSNSF
  • : Grant IDPZ00P1_179912
  • : Project TitleReading Guilty Minds
  • Content: Accepted Version