Although most (everyone ?) would say that they would not subject another person to a painful electric shock, just to make a little bit of money – research seems to prove otherwise.
The 2010 annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, shows that hypothetical scenarios don’t capture the complexities of real decisions. Subjects lying in an MRI scanner were given a choice: administer a painful electric shock to a person in another room and make £1, or don’t harm them and forgo the money. Shocks were priced in a graded manner, so that the subject would earn less money for a light shock, and earn the whole pound for a severe shock. This same choice was given 20 times, and the person in the brain scanner could see a video of either the shockee’s hand jerk or both the hand jerk and the face grimace. (Although the shocks were real, they were pre-recorded.)
When researchers gave a separate group of people a purely hypothetical choice, about 64 percent said they wouldn’t ever deliver a shock — even a mild one — for money. Overall, they would have accepted about £4.
However, when there was cold, hard cash on the table, the data changed. 96% of people in the scanner chose to administer shocks for cash and three times as much money was kept in the real task.
When participants saw only the hand of the person jerk as it got shocked, they chose to walk away with £15.77, out of the available £20.
The number dipped when participants saw both the hand and the face of the person receiving the shock: in these cases, people made off with an average of £11.55.
Although the researchers found that people grappling with a real moral dilemma had heightened activity in the parts of the brain thought to be involved in emotion, so at least the offer of money does raise a certain level of conflict in most people – even if we think it wouldn’t. (I cant believe they were only offered a £1 !)