The Trolley Problem: Solved

[May 13, 2018]  The first time a soldier goes to war, that individual wonders how they will react when confronted with a situation that requires them to kill another human being.  Will the soldier do as they are trained, freeze-up, run away, or do something else?  This unknown is the essence of the Trolley Problem.

When confronted by a life and death situation, what will people do?  Polls and surveys have been put together to ask people what they “think” they would do.  But no research has actually put people in a traumatic situation to see what they “actually” do.  Except now they have.

The trolley problem (or dilemma) can help us understand human nature better.  It can assist the military to find those who would be better soldiers and emergency response organizations to sort out those who can function well in a crisis.

In short, the trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics.  Here it is in a nutshell:

A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workers who will all be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. Adam is standing next to a large switch that can divert the trolley onto a different track. The only way to save the lives of the five workers is to divert the trolley onto another track that only has one worker on it. If Adam diverts the trolley onto the other track, this one worker will die, but the other five workers will be saved.

In a YouTube Red series called Mind Field (see link here, 34:37 Minutes), an experiment takes place under controlled conditions to compare what people say to what people actually do when confronted with a difficult choice.

What we know is that the vast majority of people say they will save the five workers by diverting the trolley to a track with one person on it; sacrificing the one for the many.  The experiment tells a different story.  When confronted with a “real” situation, however, the majority will not act at all; causing the death of five workers.

How we train soldiers to fight and others to act correctly in emergencies can be improved with this knowledge.  Now, it’s up to the experts to figure out how.

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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “The Trolley Problem: Solved

  1. Dale Paul Fox

    Good and worthy comments today. Thank you for adding to our understanding of how a problem can be solved if given the moral courage to do it.

  2. Tracey Brockman

    We get this explanation from Wikipedia:
    In 2001, Joshua Greene and colleagues published the results of the first significant empirical investigation of people’s responses to trolley problems. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, they demonstrated that “personal” dilemmas (like pushing a man off a footbridge) preferentially engage brain regions associated with emotion, whereas “impersonal” dilemmas (like diverting the trolley by flipping a switch) preferentially engaged regions associated with controlled reasoning. On these grounds, they advocate for the dual-process account of moral decision-making. Since then, numerous other studies have employed trolley problems to study moral judgment, investigating topics like the role and influence of stress, emotional state, different types of brain damage, physiological arousal, different neurotransmitters, and genetic factors on responses to trolley dilemmas.

  3. Joey Holmes

    Thank you General, I never heard of this. Cheers!

  4. Mr. T.J. Asper

    I’ll be bringing this up in class next week after I prep for the ethical logic used here. Commentors on this blog are helping me with my understanding.

  5. Jonathan B.

    Here is one of the variants:
    As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people and you can divert it onto a secondary track. However, in this variant the secondary track later rejoins the main track, so diverting the trolley still leaves it on a track which leads to the five people. But, the person on the secondary track is a fat person who, when he is killed by the trolley, will stop it from continuing on to the five people. Should you flip the switch?

    1. Jonathan B.

      The rejoining variant may not be fatal to the “using a person as a means” argument. This has been suggested by Michael J. Costa in his 1987 article “Another Trip on the Trolley”, where he points out that if we fail to act in this scenario we will effectively be allowing the five to become a means to save the one. If we do nothing, then the impact of the trolley into the five will slow it down and prevent it from circling around and killing the one. As in either case, some will become a means to save others, we are permitted to count the numbers. This approach requires that we downplay the moral difference between doing and allowing.

    2. Tony B. Custer

      Thanks for the research on this Jon.

  6. Edward Kennedy III

    I recommend you guys pay close attention to this leadership blog. It keeps you informed on what people do and don’t do to be successful in leadership. Today’s article is just another example. If you don’t read it, your loss. Good luck in your leadership journey (because that what it is). Good day!

  7. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    Like some of the others, I never heard of the Trolley Problem but can see how it applies. Learning about what makes people tick has always been both fascinating and useful for me.

    1. Wilson Cox

      Good article. Thanks for the read. I like the way it takes the “trolley problem” and twists it around. Thanks.

  8. Max Foster

    I always enjoyed (a weird enjoyment) solving seemingly unsolvable problems or dilemmas. The Trolley Problem as Gen Satterfield presented to us here is one of them. Here is a good article on it. Thanks for bringing up this topic for us on a Sunday morning right as I’m heading out the door to church.

  9. Army Captain

    I ran across this problem in a Psych 101 course in college. We didn’t spend much time on it except to note that many of us face this ethical dilemma occasionally. Tough on those who don’t have resilient personalities.

  10. Watson B.

    Interesting. and educational I never heard of the trolley problem before. Thank you for bringing this up here.

    1. Martin Shiell

      I think you will find that most of us never heard of it. This is what education is about.

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