When Causing Harm Is Unavoidable, We Prefer To Cause More Harm For More Benefits Rather Than Less Harm For Fewer

By Matthew Warren

Imagine that you’re an official faced with an unenviable decision: you must choose whether to establish a farm on existing land which can produce enough to feed 100 hungry families, or cut down an acre of rainforest to create a larger farm able to feed 500 hungry families. What choice would you make?

If you chose not to cut down the rainforest, you’re in the majority. In a new paper in Psychological Science, participants tended to avoid choosing to harm the rainforest, despite the benefits it would bring. This isn’t surprising: time and again, researchers have found that we will avoid causing harm if possible.

Now imagine that your choice is made harder. There’s no free land left; you have to cut down some of the rainforest. Would you cut down one acre to feed 100 families, or two acres to feed 500?

It’s an interesting question, because although researchers believe we’re generally averse to causing harm, they hadn’t really studied how we make decisions when some amount of harm is unavoidable.  And, perhaps surprisingly, in this second scenario almost 80% of people chose to do more damage, cutting down two acres of forest rather than one. In fact, across five other studies as well, Jonathan Berma from London Business School and Daniella Kupor from Boston University find that in situations where harm is unavoidable, people consistently try to maximise the social benefit, rather than minimise the amount of harm caused.

Most of the studies followed the same method as the rainforest one: participants either saw a scenario in which harm was avoidable but choosing to cause harm produced greater social benefit, or one in which it was unavoidable and choosing to do more harm produced greater social benefit.

For instance, in one experiment participants imagined they were a doctor deciding whether to pull a dying child off life-support to save money for cancer research. In the “avoidable” condition, they could either choose to do nothing, or to pull life support from a single child to save $60,000. In the “unavoidable” condition, they could pull life support from a single child to save $800, or from two children to save $50,000. Only 29% chose to pull life support in the avoidable condition, but 70% pulled both children off life support in the unavoidable scenario.

It’s important to note that in the experiments the benefit of committing harm was similar in both the “avoidable” and “unavoidable” conditions. Consider the rainforest dilemma: in both cases, adding an extra one acre of destruction (from 0 to 1 acre in the first scenario or from 1 to 2 acres in the second) would help feed 400 more families. So if the gains associated with doing the most harm are similar in each scenario, why are people’s decisions so different?

To examine this further, the researchers explicitly asked participants how much they made their decisions based on a desire to do as little harm as possible versus a desire to ensure that the harm they inflicted provided sufficient benefits. They found that in the scenario where harm was avoidable, participants’ decisions were guided more by a desire to reduce harm — but this flipped in the unavoidable condition, in which decision-making was guided more by a desire to maximise the benefits of doing harm. “Thus, value trade-offs that decision-makers refuse to accept when it is possible to completely avoid committing harm can suddenly become desirable when some harm must be committed,” the authors write.

A final study found that even “protected values” — those that people consider absolute and unchangeable — can be overridden in situations where harm is unavoidable. People who believed that it was unacceptable to cut down tropical rainforest “no matter how great the benefits” tended to avoid destroying an acre of rainforest to build five water treatment facilities when the alternative was to build a single facility without harming the forest. But when it was a choice between destroying one acre for one facility versus two acres for five facilities, even this group went for the more damaging but more socially beneficial option.

Overall then, the paper suggests that we’re less harm-averse than previous studies have implied, at least when it comes to decisions where there is no possibility of avoiding harm altogether. Why does this matter? Well, the authors write, we are constantly faced with decisions that force us to choose between options that have harms as well as benefits. You want some ice cream but there’s no shop in walking distance: should you drive to the nearest supermarket, keeping your carbon emissions to a minimum? Or, as you have to drive anyway, why not go an extra couple of miles to that fancy supermarket with the really nice ice cream, increasing the amount of harm you are doing to the environment, but also maximising the benefits? The study suggests the latter decision might be more likely — so it will be interesting to see whether the findings do hold up for these kinds of real life decisions too.

Moral Choice When Harming Is Unavoidable

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest