Judging the Morality of Utilitarian Actions: How Poor Utilitarian Accessibility Makes Judges Irrational

Petko Kusev, Paul van Schaik, Shrooq Alzahrani, Samantha Lonigro, Harry Purser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Is it acceptable and moral to sacrifice a few people’s lives to save many others? Research on moral dilemmas in psychology, experimental philosophy, and neuropsychology has shown that respondents judge utilitarian personal moral actions (footbridge dilemma) as less appropriate than equivalent utilitarian impersonal moral actions (trolley dilemma). Accordingly, theorists (e.g., Greene et al., 2001) have argued that judgments of appropriateness in personal moral dilemmas are more emotionally salient and cognitively demanding (taking more time to be rational) than impersonal moral dilemmas. Our novel findings show an effect of psychological accessibility (driven by partial contextual information; Kahneman, 2003) on utilitarian moral behavior and response time for rational choices. Enhanced accessibility of utilitarian outcomes through comprehensive information about moral actions and consequences boosted utility maximization in moral choices, with rational choices taking less time. Moreover, our result suggests that previous results indicating emotional interference, with rational choices taking more time to make, may have been artifacts of presenting partial information.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1961-1967
Number of pages7
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number6
Early online date27 Apr 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016
Externally publishedYes


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