(Source: Wikimedia Commons; Credit: Dean Hochman)

New findings suggest that following a strict set of moral standards is correlated with popularity. (Source: Wikimedia Commons; Credit: Dean Hochman).

Five people are in life threatening positions. Hope for them is gone, unless one innocent individual is killed. Which option would you go with?

Molly Crockett from Oxford College and David Pizarro from Cornell University performed a series of research experiments suggesting that there is in fact a popular response to this troubling moral dilemma, and it may lie in our evolutionary history.

Morality is split up into two categories: consequentialist and deontologist (1). Consequentialists place the ‘greater good’ over standard moral responses. (For the dilemma above, sacrificing one individual in order to save five people would be the obvious response if one were to follow this school of thought). On the contrary, deontologists follow a strict set of moral standards (for example, never kill an innocent individual).

One might expect the popular response to be consequentialist because of the greater overall good it reaps, but the study of 2,400 participants suggests that the deontologist view was chosen more often (3). Crockett and Pizarro pinned these results to the idea of popularity.

Choosing not to kill one innocent for the good of five other people correlates with others liking you. This stems from the idea that if strong moral rules such as refusing to kill innocent individuals are followed regardless of the circumstance, the given individual is seemingly more trustworthy and reliable. To test for this hypothesis, the study involved people given a sum of money. They were then asked to loan out this money to others who answered the moral dilemma listed above. Overall, the people in the sample were more willing to lend money out to the individuals who followed the deontologist school of thought because they were viewed as trustworthy and more likely to return the sum of money (2).

The theory extended further to another dilemma given to the sample. They were asked if before passing out due to a fatal bullet wound, someone said to kill them to spare them to pain, whether or not they would comply with the person’s request. Many who answered yes to the question were again viewed as trustworthy because they complied with the other individual’s requests and demands.

So why is this train of thought so deeply embedded into the way we think? Researchers still aren’t too sure, but it is believed that the likelihood of being a suitable life partner was raised in the minds of our ancestors if people followed this line of thought. As a result, we gradually adapted this form of thinking to raise the chances of appealing to a future partner. Its prevalence only increased through processes similar to those of natural selection. So next time you’re given a moral dilemma, answer carefully—your reputation may hinge on it.



1) “Ethics Text Page.” Ethics Text Page. Seton Hall University, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

2) Everett, J. A., Pizarro, D. A., Crockett, M. J. (2016). Inference of Trustworthiness From Intuitive Moral Judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. DOI: 10.1037/xge0000165

3) University of Oxford. (2016, April 7). Researchers help explain why we favor a black and white approach to morality: Would you kill one innocent person to save five? Choose your answer wisely: Your popularity may depend on it.ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 18, 2016 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160407132333.htm