Would You Kill Hitler if You Could? Men Say Yes. Women Say No. Why?

At the core of writing fiction is the task of putting your character or characters into conflict to see how they react and cope so as to expose something meaningful or insightful about the human animal.  As men and women often react differently to the same situations, as an author or screenwriter, the better you understand these differences in reaction improves the believability of what you create.

Take this question:
  • If a time machine was available, would it be right to kill Adolf Hitler when he was still a young Austrian artist well before he started WWII?  You'd save some 40 million lives. 
Yes?  No?  Your answer depends on whether you're a man or a woman.  Consider this question:
  • Should a police officer torture an alleged bomber to find hidden explosives that could kill many people at a local cafe?
Characters, Emotion
& Viewpoint
(Write Great Fiction Series)
by Nancy Kress

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Again, whether you say yes or no tends to depend on your sex.  Men tend to answer these moral questions one way, women another. Not based on moral arguments as much as on emotion, according to lead research author Rebecca Friesdorf, a graduate student in social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, teamed with Paul Conway, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Cologne, and Bertram Gawronski, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Gender difference in moral judgments rooted in emotion, not reasoning
In this research, men, relative to women, show a stronger preference for utilitarian over deontological judgments, according to a new meta-analysis of 40 studies. This gender difference in moral decisions is caused by stronger emotional aversion to harmful action among women; the study found no evidence for gender differences in the rational evaluation of the outcomes of harmful actions.
Deontological ethics or deontology is the normative or socially accepted ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. It is sometimes described as "duty-" or "obligation-" or "rule-" based ethics, because rules "bind you to your duty."
When faced with such dilemmas, men are typically more willing to accept harmful actions for the sake of the greater good than women because they are likely to find that killing Hitler is a duty to society.  Women would be less likely to support the killing of a young Hitler or torturing a bombing suspect, even if doing so would ultimately save lives, because of the harm to that individual.  Feeling that something is a duty or might harm an individual are both emotional reactions to the situation.
"Women are more likely to have a gut-level negative reaction to causing harm to an individual, while men experience less emotional responses to doing harm," says lead research author Rebecca Friesdorf. This finding runs contrary to the common stereotype that women being more emotional means that they are also less rational, Friesdorf says.

This study is a large-scale reanalysis of data from 6,100 participants, who were asked 20 questions that posed various moral dilemmas, including decisions about murder, torture, lying, abortion, and animal research.

The study examined two contrasting philosophical principles that relate to ethics.
  • Deontology, in which the morality of an action depends on its consistency with a moral norm. Immanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher who was the most famous proponent of the theory, once argued that it was always wrong to lie, even if a murderer asked whether his intended victim was inside a house so he could kill him. 
  • Utilitarianism holds that an action is moral if it maximizes utility, or the greatest good for the most people. From a utilitarian view, an action could be ethical in one situation and unethical in another depending on the potential outcome.
Again, researchers found no evidence of gender differences in utilitarian reasoning.  Both men and women evaluate the moral situations much the same way.

The findings suggest that women have a stronger emotional aversion to causing harm than men. The findings are in line with previous research showing that women are more empathetic to the feelings of other people than men, whereas gender differences in cognitive abilities tend to be small or nonexistent, Friesdorf says.
Related stories:
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Story Source:  Materials provided by Society for Personality and Social Psychology.  Rebecca Friesdorf et al. Gender Differences in Responses to Moral Dilemmas: A Process Dissociation Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, April 2015


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