Goldstein-Greenwood J, et al.
Personality and Social Psychology
Sacrificial moral dilemmas, in which opting to kill one person will save multiple others, are definitionally suboptimal: Someone dies either way. Decision-makers, then, may experience regret about these decisions. Past research distinguishes affective regret, negative feelings about a decision, from cognitive regret, thoughts about how a decision might have gone differently. Classic dual-process models of moral judgment suggest that affective processing drives characteristically deontological decisions to reject outcome-maximizing harm, whereas cognitive deliberation drives characteristically utilitarian decisions to endorse outcome-maximizing harm. Consistent with this model, we found that people who made or imagined making sacrificial utilitarian judgments reliably expressed relatively more affective regret and sometimes expressed relatively less cognitive regret than those who made or imagined making deontological dilemma judgments. In other words, people who endorsed causing harm to save lives generally felt more distressed about their decision, yet less inclined to change it, than people who rejected outcome-maximizing harm.
Across four studies, we found that different sacrificial moral dilemma decisions elicit different degrees of affective and cognitive regret. We found robust evidence that utilitarian decision-makers who accept outcome-maximizing harm experience far more affective regret than their deontological decision-making counterparts who reject outcome-maximizing harm, and we found somewhat weaker evidence that utilitarian decision-makers experience less cognitive regret than deontological decision-makers.The significant interaction between dilemma decision and regret type predicted in H1 emerged both when participants freely endorsed dilemma decisions (Studies 1, 3, and 4) and were randomly assigned to imagine making a decision (Study 2). Hence, the present findings cannot simply be attributed to chronic differences in the types of regret that people who prioritize each decision experience. Moreover, we found tentative evidence for H2: Focusing on the counterfactual world in which they made the alternative decision attenuated utilitarian decision-makers’ heightened affective regret compared with factual reflection, and reduced differences in affective regret between utilitarian and deontological decision-makers (Study 4). Furthermore, our findings do not appear attributable to impression management concerns, as there were no differences between public and private reports of regret.