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Supplements of testosterone can change how people respond to ethical dilemmas 

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Taking testosterone supplements may make people more sensitive to traditional moral values. 

It also determined that people taking testosterone can be less likely to make unpalatable choices for the so-called greater good.

Researchers used variants of the famous ‘trolley problem’ to see how artificially increased testosterone levels made people act.   

It posed various forms of the same central idea which asks a participant if they would make the decision to save the lives of five people by diverting a trolley if it meant their actions would kill another person.  

The findings by psychologists from Texas counter past studies and these results highlight that testosterone’s influence on decision-making behaviour is more complicated than had been previously assumed.

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Taking testosterone supplements may make people more sensitive to traditional moral norms and less likely to make unpalatable choices for the greater good

Taking testosterone supplements may make people more sensitive to traditional moral norms and less likely to make unpalatable choices for the greater good

WHAT IS THE TROLLEY PROBLEM? 

In its traditional presentation, this thought experiment involves a runaway trolley — or a tram, as they called in Britain — which is heading towards some points. 

If no-one intervenes, the trolley will crash into and kill five people. 

The car can be switched onto the other track, however, where only one person would be in its path.

The dilemma explores the choice between the greater good — sacrificing one person to save five — and following the moral principle that actively killing someone is wrong.

Although many previous studies have investigated moral judgements through the lens of behavioural responses and corresponding brain activity, little has been done to explore the role of more fundamental biological factors — such as hormone levels.

To explore the impact of testosterone, psychologist Bertram Gawronski and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin compared the moral decision-making of 100 people who had been given the hormone and 100 who took placebos.

‘There’s been an increasing interest in how hormones influence moral judgements in a fundamental way by regulating brain activity,’ said Professor Gawronski.

‘To the extent that moral reasoning is at least partly rooted in deep-seated biological factors, some moral conflicts might be difficult to resolve with arguments.’

To test the morals of the participants, researchers turned to a variation of philosophy’s so-called ‘trolley problem’.

In its traditional presentation, the thought experiment involves a runaway trolley — or a tram, as they called in Britain — which is heading towards some points.

If no-one intervenes, the trolley will crash into and kill five people. The car can be switched onto the other track, however, where only one person would be in its path. 

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Instead of the ‘classic’ trolley problem, the team presented the participants with 24 similar dilemmas — each derived from real-life events — that were chosen to distinguish between utilitarian and so-called ‘deontological’ decision making.

To test the morals of the participants, researchers turned to a variation of philosophy's so-called 'trolley problem'. In its traditional presentation, the thought experiment involves a runaway trolley — or a tram, as they called in Britain — which is heading towards some points

To test the morals of the participants, researchers turned to a variation of philosophy’s so-called ‘trolley problem’. In its traditional presentation, the thought experiment involves a runaway trolley — or a tram, as they called in Britain — which is heading towards some points

Utilitarian decisions are ones that focus on achieving the greater good — in the classic trolley problem, for example, this would involve switching the points so that the five people are spared at the expense of the person on the other track.

In contrast, deontological choices follow moral norms — such as avoiding actions that directly harm someone. 

In the typical trolley dilemma, then, this would involve letting five people die by default rather than actively dooming one person.

‘The study was designed to test whether testosterone directly influences moral judgements and how,’ said paper co-author Skylar Brannon.

‘Our design also allowed us to examine three independent aspects of moral judgement — including sensitivity to consequences, sensitivity to moral norms and general preference for action or inaction.’  

Instead of the 'classic' trolley problem, the team presented the participants with 24 similar dilemmas — each derived from real-life events — that were chosen to distinguish between utilitarian and so-called 'deontological' decision making

Instead of the ‘classic’ trolley problem, the team presented the participants with 24 similar dilemmas — each derived from real-life events — that were chosen to distinguish between utilitarian and so-called ‘deontological’ decision making

Previous studies on the influence of hormones on moral judgement had suggested that higher testosterone levels are associated with more utilitarian decision making.  

The researchers found that this was true for participants with naturally high levels of testosterone 

However, Professor Gawronski and colleagues were surprised to discover that participants who had taken testosterone supplements were instead less likely to act in the interests of the greater good and more sensitive to moral norms.

Naturally occurring testosterone may be associated with more utilitarian judgements because people with different personality traits tend to have different levels of testosterone, the researchers suggested.

‘The current work challenges some dominant hypotheses about the effects of testosterone on moral judgements,’ Professor Gawronski said.

‘Our findings echo the importance of distinguishing between causation and correlation in research on neuroendocrine determinants of human behaviour.’

‘The effects of testosterone supplements on moral judgements can be opposite to association between naturally occurring testosterone and moral judgements.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

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