True or False: Simple Rules of Thumb Help With Complex Moral Decisions

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute participate in an international network to study moral values

May 04, 2010

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin have won a 200,000-dollar research award from the University of Chicago. Together with 18 other award winners from the fields of philosophy, neurosciences, and economics, they are participating in the New Science of Virtues Project, an international research network.

Moral decisions often follow simple decision-making patterns

Our everyday lives are increasingly defined by a flood of information and time pressure. Fast decisions are what is needed – but are fast decisions also the “right” decisions? Moral values offer guidance. They set standards that people can use in charting and evaluating their own actions, enabling fast decisions about right and wrong. “Many people seem to have intuitive knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. That means that having a set of values and a sense of virtues can help people make fast decisions in complex everyday situations – like the situation with what we consider ‘rules of thumb,’” explains psychologist Julian Marewski, who is leading the study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, together with Edward Cokely and Adam Feltz. “Good decisions are often the result of simple heuristic processes, especially when it comes to complex issues. We assume that moral decision-making processes also follow this pattern, and we want to map out the social, economic, and social policy implications of this factor,” adds Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Adaptive Behavior and Cognition research unit at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

Small cause, big effect

The tremendous impact that the application of heuristics can have on the outcomes of complex decision-making processes is evident from the following example. Since 1955, 50,000 U.S. citizens have died while waiting for an organ transplant from a donor. That is because although most Americans approve of organ donation, only about one in four actually consents to become a donor. In France, by contrast, the donor rate is nearly 99.9%. The factors responsible for this difference do not seem to include cultural or moral differences. Instead, American and French citizens seem to follow the same rule of thumb (heuristic), which tells them not to deviate from the standard. While the legal standard in the United States holds that every citizen is a non-donor, and citizens have to actively consent to become organ donors, all French citizens are considered donors by default and must opt out of the program if they do not wish to donate their organs.

Heuristics are strategies that work with just a portion of the available information and ignore the rest. They help the brain to solve complex problems in a short period. This study will examine moral decision-making processes with academic and scientific methods and compare the results against findings from research on heuristics.

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