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Monday, January 10, 2022

Sequential decision-making impacts moral judgment: How iterative dilemmas can expand our perspective on sacrificial harm

D.H. Bostyn and A.Roets
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 98, January 2022, 104244


When are sacrificial harms morally appropriate? Traditionally, research within moral psychology has investigated this issue by asking participants to render moral judgments on batteries of single-shot, sacrificial dilemmas. Each of these dilemmas has its own set of targets and describes a situation independent from those described in the other dilemmas. Every decision that participants are asked to make thus takes place within its own, separate moral universe. As a result, people's moral judgments can only be influenced by what happens within that specific dilemma situation. This research methodology ignores that moral judgments are interdependent and that people might try to balance multiple moral concerns across multiple decisions. In the present series of studies we present participants with iterative versions of sacrificial dilemmas that involve the same set of targets across multiple iterations. Using this novel approach, and across five preregistered studies (total n = 1890), we provide clear evidence that a) responding to dilemmas in a sequential, iterative manner impacts the type of moral judgments that participants favor and b) that participants' moral judgments are not only motivated by the desire to refrain from harming others (usually labelled as deontological judgment), or a desire to minimize harms (utilitarian judgment), but also by a desire to spread out harm across all possible targets.


• Research on sacrificial harm usually asks participants to judge single-shot dilemmas.

• We investigate sacrificial moral dilemma judgment in an iterative context.

• Sequential decision making impacts moral preferences.

• Many participants express a non-utilitarian concern for the overall spread of harm.

Moral deliberation in iterative contexts

The iterative lens we have adopted prompts some intriguing questions about the nature of moral deliberation in the context of sacrificial harm. Existing theoretical models on sacrificial harm can be described as ‘competition models’ (for instance, Conway & Gawronski, 2013; Gawronski et al., 2017; Greene et al., 2001, 2004; Hennig & Hütter, 2020). These models argue that opposing psychological processes compete to deliver a specific moral judgment and that the process that wins out, will determine the nature of that moral judgment. As such, these models presume that the goal of moral deliberation is about deciding whether to refrain from harm or minimize harm in a mutually exclusive manner. Even if participants are tempted by both options, eventually, their judgment settles wholly on one or the other. This is sensible in the context of non-iterative dilemmas in which outcomes hinge on a single decision but is it equally sensible in iterative contexts?

Consider the results of Study 4. In this study, we asked (a subset of) participants how many shocks they would divert out of a total six shocks. Interestingly, 32% of these participants decided to divert a single shock out of the six (See Fig. 6), thus shocking the individual once, and the group five times. How should such a decision be interpreted? These participants did not fully refrain from harming others, nor did they fully minimize harm, nor did they spread harm in the most balanced of ways.  Responses like this seem to straddle different moral concerns. While future research will need to corroborate these findings, we suggest that responses like this, i.e. responses that seem to straddle multiple moral concerns, cannot be explained by competition models but necessitate theoretical models that explicitly take into account that participants might strive to strike a (idiosyncratic) pluralistic balance between multiple moral concerns.