Carnegie Mellon University
May 18, 2020

How Morals Influence Spatial Decision-Making

By Stacy Kish

Many decisions, especially during conflict, are steeped in difficult moral and ethical dilemmas. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University explored how context frames an individual’s decision-making during two simulations that either helped their allies or harmed the enemy and the resulting collateral damage in each. The results are available online in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.

“When faced with risky decisions, individuals will respond to risk differently,” said Kevin Jarbo, a postdoctoral fellow working in Timothy Verstynen’s lab in CMU’s Department of Psychology and first author on the paper. “I want to explore where those differences come from.”

Previous studies have examined decision-making along a spectrum from harmful to helpful. According to Jarbo, context matters. His team developed two identical simulations that differed only in whether a volunteer dropped ammunition for allies or bombs on the enemy. He was curious how people behaved when considering collateral damage by either accidently bombing allies or releasing ammunition to the enemy.

“It’s not just how much you have to lose, but what you think you’re losing that matters,” said Jarbo. “You have to look at are you causing harm or are you helping to guide how we behave.”

During the study, 44 participants used a mouse to target the center of a cluster of dots that could represent allies, enemies or trees (no penalty) on the screen. In the harm context, the volunteers were instructed to neutralize as many enemies as possible even though trees or allies were nearby. In the help context, the volunteers had to determine where to drop ammunition when the enemy was close by. The team examined how the participants shifted the location of the drone target to avoid or maximize harm.

“People thought neutralizing allies was way worse than having ammunition stolen,” said Jarbo. “No real comparison has been shown with this kind of task before.”

They found that the volunteers often hesitated when considering to bomb the enemy if it meant bringing harm to their allies or release of ammunition that the enemy could intercept. The team measured avoidance bias as the distance in pixels on the computer screen between the target and the non-target. They found the participants were harm averse when placed in situations that could lead to casualties on their side.

“When people have to make these decisions, they are not just thinking about the numbers or statistics. There are emotional components that come into play that influence our subjective perception of those numbers,” said Jarbo. “People who make policy decisions need to be aware of the emotional aspect of messaging and consider social context when framing policies to nudge people to make better decisions.” 

Jarbo emphasizes that this study did not explore why participants behaved differently in the ‘harm’ versus ‘help’ scenarios. It also did not explore the ethical disposition of the participants in the study or how the narratives may have contributed to their  decisions. He hopes to link this kind of work to other forms of cognition during future studies. 

Jarbo was joined by Timothy Verstynen and David Colaço at CMU in the study titled, “Contextual Framing of Loss Impacts Harm Avoidance during Risky Spatial Decisions.” Their project received funding from John Templeton Foundation.