Marsh et al. "Serotonin Transporter Genotype (5-HTTLPR) Predicts Utilitarian Moral Judgments"

by Jack1 min read7th Oct 201110 comments


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The whole paper is here.  In short, they found a genotype that predicts people's response to the original trolley problem:

A trolley (i.e. in British English a tram) is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?

Participants with one kind of serotonin transmitter (LL-homozygotes) judged flipping the switch to be better than a morally neutral action. Participants with the other kind (S-carriers) judged flipping the switch to be no better than a morally neutral action. The groups responded equally to the "fat man scenario" both rejecting the 'push' option.

Some quotes:

We hypothesized that 5-HTTLPR genotype would interact with intentionality in respondents who generated moral judgments. Whereas we predicted that all participants would eschew intentionally harming an innocent for utilitarian gains, we predicted that participants' judgments of foreseen but unintentional harm would diverge as a function of genotype. Specifically, we predicted that LL homozygotes would adhere to the principle of double effect and preferentially select the utilitarian option to save more lives despite unintentional harm to an innocent victim, whereas S-allele carriers would be less likely to endorse even unintentional harm. Results of behavioral testing confirmed this hypothesis.

Participants in this study judged the acceptability of actions that would unintentionally or intentionally harm an innocent victim in order to save others' lives. An analysis of variance revealed a genotype × scenario interaction, F(2, 63) = 4.52, p = .02. Results showed that, relative to long allele homozygotes (LL), carriers of the short (S) allele showed particular reluctance to endorse utilitarian actions resulting in foreseen harm to an innocent individual. LL genotype participants rated perpetrating unintentional harm as more acceptable (M = 4.98, SEM = 0.20) than did SL genotype participants (M = 4.65, SEM = 0.20) or SS genotype participants (M = 4.29, SEM = 0.30).


The results indicate that inherited variants in a genetic polymorphism that influences serotonin neurotransmission influence utilitarian moral judgments as well. This finding is interpreted in light of evidence that the S allele is associated with elevated emotional responsiveness.


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