Are Psychology Tests Still Useful When We Mock Them?


Various psychologists weigh in on a debate in The Atlantic about a widely used and frequently cited psychology test to assess people’s moral compass. In “The Trolley Problem,” people are variously asked if they’d turn a racing trolley away from five people in favor of hitting one, or if they’d push a gigantically fat man in front of a trolley to save five others — questions which, researchers admit, almost always inspire giggles among test participants. Writer Olsa Khazan interviews experts about how such meta-level reactions from participants could influence the results of psychological tests.

Some argue that such tests are used simply as metaphors or puzzles to help study aspects of how people think. But Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado suggests to the Atlantic that the confounding influences are too substantial. “If you study moral judgement and people are laughing about the experimental materials you’re giving them, that might be a problem,” says McGraw.

A separate article in The Conversation, though, suggests these questions aren’t just theoretical when it comes to programming driverless cars.

Is One of the Most Popular Psychology Experiments Worthless? (The Atlantic, July 24, 2014)

Should your robot driver kill you to save a child’s life? (The Conversation, August 1, 2014)


  1. This is a rather humorous article. But, one thing the researchers didn’t seem to mention, is that technically, if you push a fat man off a bridge to save five others, you’re a murderer and can go to jail. But switching tracks, to kill one instead of five, does not make one an intentional murderer.

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