Which is morally worse: Pushing someone overboard to drown or doing nothing to save someone who is clearly drowning?

A good deal of psychological research has documented what has been called the "omission bias": When considering the best way to commit harm, if given the choice, people overwhelmingly choose inaction over action, even if both options lead to the same bad outcome. In fact, people tend to choose the inaction option even when inaction leads to more harm than action.

Another line of studies has documented a similar effect for judging other people's actions: People judge someone who poisons a victim as more blameworthy than someone who withholds the antidote from the victim.

Are these two phenomena just reflections of the same underlying bias toward favoring inaction, inertia, and the status quo? Or might they have a more interesting and subtle relationship?
Some recent research suggests the latter. In a clever integration of the two phenomena, Peter DeScioli, John Christner, and Robert Kurzban argue in a recent paper that one phenomenon explains the other: In other words, people are more willing to opt for inaction because they know that, in general, others are more lenient toward non-actors than toward actors. According to DeScioli and colleagues, when people wish to perform an immoral act, they seem to intuit that they will receive less censure if they bring it about through nonaction than through overt, observable action. In so doing, they can opt for a course of action that balances causing the most harm against maintaining the appearance of not being immoral.

Here is how DeScioli and colleagues tested their hypothesis. They had participants play a simple game in which the randomly-assigned "owner" starts out with $1.00. The "taker" could then take 10 cents or 90 cents of the owner's money for him or herself. Clearly, taking 90 cents is more selfish than taking 10 cents. There was, however, a third option as well. Participants were told that if the taker did nothing, after 15 seconds, the taker would 85 cents and the owner is left with nothing. Thus, the inaction option leads to worse outcomes than either of the other two options for both the owner and the taker.

DeScioli and colleagues added one more wrinkle. Half of the time, there was a third participant (the "punisher") whose job was to deduct as much money as he or she saw fit from the taker, based on the taker's behavior. In other words, the greater the perceived crime, the more money the punisher could subtract from the taker. For the other half of the participants, there was no third player, no punisher.

How did takers and punishers behave in this game? First, looking at things from the taker's perspective: Takers were much more likely to let the clock expire when there was a punisher present (51%) than when there was not (28%). In other words, the threat of punishment pushed people toward the inaction option.

Now, looking at things from the punisher's perspective: Punishers punished less harshly when the taker let the time expire (an average fine of 14.4 cents) than when the taker simply took 90 cents from the owner (20.8 cents).

Thus, as predicted, when takers took the inaction option, they wound up with approximately the same amount of money (85 cents vs. 90 cents), but they were punished less harshly. So it appears that the takers were acting rationally, if more than a tad cynically.

So why do people consider sins of omission less bad than sins of commission, even if the bottom-line outcome is the same? Psychologists, economists, and ethicists have proposed a number of reasons. These include: 1. For omissions, there is ambiguity about the actor's intentions. (Was the nonaction a cynical ploy or was the actor simply uncertain about what to do?) 2. Actions are more salient, more attention-grabbing than nonactions. (Actions leave a heavier imprint on our impressions and are thus judged more extremely.) 3. Cultural norms dictate that intervening to save someone is considered extraordinary, not a requirement. We do not have a "Good Samaritan" standard.

Whatever the reason, this work highlights the strategic, subtle, and sophisticated calculations that people perform when they engage in an immoral act. In particular, it indicates that not only are people aware of the presence of an audience, but they have a rather accurate sense of the audience's preferences and biases.

DeScioli, P., Christner, J., Kurzban, R. (2011). The omission strategy. Psychological Science, 22, 442-446.

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