Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Throw Whitey in Front of the Train? The Differing Moral Universes of Liberals and Conservatives

Turned out the racial identities did indeed, ah, color peoples’ judgments, but it colored them differently depending on their political bent. Pizarro, who describes himself as a person who “would probably be graded a liberal on tests,” roughly expected that liberals would be more consistent. Yet liberals proved just as prejudiced here as conservatives were, but in reverse: While self-described conservatives more readily accepted the sacrifice of Tyrone than they did killing Chip, the liberals were easier about seeing Chip sacrificed than Tyrone.

Are your moral codes flexible or absolute? Would you kill one person in order to save the life of another? If so, how would you make the calculation?

Apparently, if psychologist David Pizarro's findings are to be believed, liberals and conservatives would sacrifice different individuals if faced with this classic moral dilemma. David, using a version of the classic "trolley problem" asked college students if they would be willing to sacrifice one person by throwing him on to the tracks in front of a trolley if it would save a group of 100 people. Not content with a basic test, Dr. Pizarro mixed it up a bit--what if one of those to be sacrificed was black, the other white? Adding a further twist, what if the groups to be saved were of (presumably) different racial backgrounds than he who was to be sacrificed?

Enter: The Kill Whitey Study. Its findings? Self-identified liberals are much more likely to sacrifice a white man (named Chip Ellsworth III) to save the Harlem Jazz Orchestra. Conservatives are much more likely to sacrifice a black man (named Tyrone Payton) to save the New York Philharmonic. Apparently, both groups used post hoc reasoning to appear more consistent with how they frame their moral choices.

This raises a number of fascinating possibilities. Are conservatives more consistent than ostensibly pragmatic liberals?Are both motivated by their own unique sense of right and wrong? Do liberals embrace diversity as a principal, or is there some white/liberal guilt at work in their decision to save Tyrone and not Chip? Conversely, are conservatives just primed to throw black people in front of the proverbial train whenever they get the chance?

The trolley dilemma is a classic, made more so by Pizarro's application of it. How would you make your decision? Is jazz more valuable than classical music? Has Tyrone suffered enough in this life because of race prejudice and white privilege, so now it is time for Chip to pay Tyrone's long overdue freedom dues? Do you know someone named Tyrone and can't stand him, thus you would sacrifice his namesake on principle? Is your husband/best friend/school chum named Chip and you can't bring yourself to liquidate him?

A methodological question: Would the results change if black and brown folks were oversampled? What if one played with gender? Let's say Tyrone was replaced by Shaniqua Jackson and Chip by Becky Jones? Who would get thrown in front of the trolley then, and by whom?

"Kill Whitey. Its the Right Thing to Do" can be found on Wired magazine here.


John Kurman said...

This is hardly surprising regardless of what fashion statement you operate under.

We act, and then we rationalize. Our brains evolved to survive, not reason. If you wish: It is not logical, but it is human.

Oh, and I'd kill someone named Chip just on general principles. Probably give him a few rabbit punches before I tipped him off the bridge.

olderwoman said...

Take a good look at the graphs in the original study:
What you will see is very broad variation around the trend lines. This is a between-subject study with random assignment (I hope) to groups, not a within-subject experiment, and the trend lines are weak relative to the total variation. The authors' interpretations I would say are too strong for the data. However, the consistency of the trend across studies is notable.

What I thought of was race of subject: In Orange County California, Republicans & Conservatives are more likely to be White while Democrats & Liberals are more likely to be Hispanic (and possibly Black although I don't think there are a lot of Blacks in Orange County). It is possible that political attitude is confounded with subject's ethnicity/race in the studies.

chaunceydevega said...

@John. Be nice to Chip. We can't choose our parents or our names. But you hit on something there--what if the test taker did not get the signal of race given the names? What if hey received it differently? I.e. chip is a blue blood snob, and tyrone sounds like a cool working class guy?

@olderwoman--You never know when a well trained social scientist will make a helpful comment. Good catch on the trends across data. What was the explained variance?

In the sample, if the correlations are that tight, could they not use political attitudes as a proxy variable for race? But then again, they undersampled blacks and latinos (if I read their rebuttal correctly). It would be very powerful to do this experiment by race, and then look for ideological variation within racial groups and how it impacts the decision making process.

Alternatively, that would also allow one to tease out class as a variable--what if boogie black folks want to throw tyrone in front of the trolley because of some perceived class difference, and also because of what liking the Philharmonic over the Harlem Jazz group would signify.

One can't read intentions from these types of models, alas.

CareyCarey said...

Well Chauncey, again this is too deep for me.

The whole liberal and conservative tags are just too broad. Besides, those studies are so slanted and self serving.

But I'll tell you what, there are a few negros I'd like to throw under the train. Yep, Eddie Long, Steve Harvey and Tyler Perry.

In fact, I just saw a secret youtube video of them all in action.

Check it out:

or here:

marci said...

i like music so they'd both be thrown under....
i'd much prefer chip and tyrone battle to the death...

Big K said...

I say, look to the hero in the clip. When faced with the moral dilemma of sacrificing one person to save all, Mr. Spock made the logical and moral choice: He sacrificed himself.

To me, the whole issue is moot if you don't choose yourself before going to Chip or Tyrone.

Also: That scene is the only scene I know that always brings me to tears. Of course I'm strangling a kitten to remain manly, but still, I cry.

John Kurman said...

Mister D,

Oh,oh..., alright. Chip can't help it. Can I just rabbit punch him and leave it at that? However, Big K has a point. That would be the logical solution, and, in real situations, more often than not self-sacrifice *is* the most compelling option.