How smartphones affect our morals

Whilst classic economics has long proposed man is rational when making decisions, behavioral economics highlights the numerous ways in which our decisions are really anything but.  Now, a new study from City University, London, reveals how our choice of technology affects our decision making.

The researchers presented over 1,000 participants with a classic moral dilemma – the Trolley Problem.  Moral judgements are typically divided into intuitive responses (deontological) versus rational (utilitarian) responses.  Intuitive responses tend to veer more towards moral norms or rules, whereas rational ones are more dependent upon the consequences.

As those of you familiar with the trolley dilemma will know, it is designed to split participants between very personal and impersonal decision making.  The interesting thing was however, that participants were much more likely to take the rational, utilitarian response when they were using their smartphone than when using a desktop computer.

This became even more pronounced when time pressures were added to the experiment, suggesting that in the kind of rushed world in which we often utilize our mobile phones in, we are more likely to engage in very utilitarian behavior.

“What we found in our study is that when people used a smartphone to view classic moral problems, they were more likely to make more unemotional, rational decisions when presented with a highly emotional dilemma. This could be due to the increased time pressures often present with smartphones and also the increased psychological distance which can occur when we use such devices compared to PCs,” the authors say.

“Due to the fact that our social lives, work and even shopping takes place online, it is important to think about how the contexts where we typically face ethical decisions and are asked to engage in moral behaviour have changed, and the impact this could have on the hundreds of millions of people who use such devices daily.”