sacrificing women moral
Sacrificing a woman for the common good or for one's self-interest appears less moral than doing the same for a man. Istock

People's willingness to engage in harmful action is influenced by a gender bias, scientists have claimed. Whether it is to save others or to pursue our own self-interests, we are apparently more likely to sacrifice a man than a women – and to find it morally acceptable.

The study, published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, investigates what role gender and social norms play in influencing our moral decisions.

The researchers, from the University of Columbia in New York, found out that society endorses chivalrous behaviours that make it more acceptable to harm a male than a female.

The 'trolley dilemma'

These norms appear particularly strongly in situations where the sacrifice of a person would save many others.

The researchers submitted more than 350 participants in the US to the "trolley dilemma", a test commonly used in psychology research.

The study subjects were asked how willing they were to push a person in front of the trolley, in order to save five others. Three situations were described: in one the person that had to be pushed was a woman, in the second he was a man and in the last the individual was "gender neutral".

The researchers discovered that people were less willing to push the person when it was a woman, compared to when it was a man or had no defined sex.

In our self-interest

This unwillingness to hurt woman also appears when people are asked to harm someone not for the common good, but to pursue their self-interests.

The participants were given £20 and during the experiment, they had to decide whether to keep it, or return it. They would receive ten times the amount if they kept it. But of course there was a catch: the experiment involved other people receiving electric shocks if they took the decision to keep the money.

The study subject appeared to give the money back more willingly when the threatened individual was a woman, to save her from receiving an electric shock.

Social norms and moral response

Participants were then asked a series of questions to assess how much social norms influenced their likelihood of hurting women. For example, they were asked whether they thought social norms made it morally acceptable to harm men or women or how well they thought both genders tolerated pain.

The two experiments and the answers given by the participants strongly suggest that social norms account for greater harming behaviour toward men than women. Participants – both male and female – were more likely to say that women are less tolerant to pain than men or that it is unacceptable to harm females for personal gain.

Social norms and perceptions of men and women are thus still the determinant factor of some of our moral choices. "There is indeed a gender bias in these matters: society perceives harming women as more morally unacceptable," concludes co-author Dean Mobbs.