Research Article: People making deontological judgments in the Trapdoor dilemma are perceived to be more prosocial in economic games than they actually are

Date Published: October 11, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Valerio Capraro, Jonathan Sippel, Bonan Zhao, Levin Hornischer, Morgan Savary, Zoi Terzopoulou, Pierre Faucher, Simone F. Griffioen, Pablo Brañas-Garza.


Why do people make deontological decisions, although they often lead to overall unfavorable outcomes? One account is receiving considerable attention: deontological judgments may signal commitment to prosociality and thus may increase people’s chances of being selected as social partners–which carries obvious long-term benefits. Here we test this framework by experimentally exploring whether people making deontological judgments are expected to be more prosocial than those making consequentialist judgments and whether they are actually so. In line with previous studies, we identified deontological choices using the Trapdoor dilemma. Using economic games, we take two measures of general prosociality towards strangers: trustworthiness and altruism. Our results procure converging evidence for a perception gap according to which Trapdoor-deontologists are believed to be more trustworthy and more altruistic towards strangers than Trapdoor-consequentialists, but actually they are not so. These results show that deontological judgments are not universal, reliable signals of prosociality.

Partial Text

Human beings are constantly confronted with choices that have explicit moral dimensions. There has been much philosophical research about how to properly guide and judge these choices from an ethical point of view, leading to two popular traditions: consequentialism and deontological ethics. Consequentialism states that choices are to be assessed solely by their expected consequences and the states of affairs they bring about. Positions of this kind are often seen to have their intellectual predecessor in Utilitarianism as promoted by Jeremy Bentham and the work of John Stuart Mill, exemplified in Mill’s statement that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” [1]. Along the lines of the consequentialist tradition, the consequences of an action (and thereby their moral value) have often been classified in terms of happiness or use–thus generally stating that an action is morally good if it brings about favorable consequences. Consequentialist views are often contrasted with deontological ethics. Here, the moral value of actions and choices is not to be evaluated solely on grounds of their consequences. An action is to be evaluated as morally good or bad if it is instantiating or violating certain ethical norms, respectively. Deontological ethics often claim to be of Kantian origin as Immanuel Kant prominently advocated an ethical framework relying on categorical norms and duties [2]. One example of fundamental importance is his practical imperative that demands respect for human beings as such: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” [2]. In Kantian and much of deontological ethics in general, it is thus prohibited to use human beings solely to achieve one’s goals–thereby demanding a certain respect for human life as such. Norms and duties of this kind have to be followed even if by that unfavorable overall consequences are to be expected. This philosophical discourse thus offers a possible background against which one can evaluate moral decision making and ethical behavior.

We start by exploring whether people making deontological decisions in the Trapdoor dilemma (Trapdoor-deontologists) are more trustworthy than those making consequentialist decisions in the same dilemma (Trapdoor-consequentialists).

Study 1 uncovered a perception gap according to which Trapdoor-deontologists are not significantly more trustworthy than Trapdoor-consequentialists, although they are perceived to be so.

We tested the hypothesis that people making deontological judgments in the Trapdoor dilemma are more trustworthy and more altruistic towards strangers than those making consequentialist judgments. In doing so, we found a perception gap such that people perceive Trapdoor-deontologists to be more altruistic and more trustworthy towards strangers than Trapdoor-consequentialists, but they actually are not.




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