A teen and a trolley reveal society’s dark side


What if this was a runaway streetcar in the trolley problem? If the train continues on its track, five people will be killed. But you can flip a switch and let it kill just one person instead. 


WASHINGTON, D.C. — A runaway trolley is barreling down a track. It’s headed toward five helpless people who can’t possibly get out of the way in time. But you’ve seen it coming. If you throw a single switch, you can put the trolley on a different track. Unfortunately, there’s someone standing on that second track who will now get hit. What do you do? Throw the switch and doom one person? Or do nothing and watch five die?

Thankfully, this situation isn’t real. It is a thought problem known as “the trolley problem.” Tiffany Sun, 17, used it to explore biases in people against certain types of appearance, of apparent income or of disability. Her results show some of our darkest behaviors. But knowing that those dark sides exist might help us fight to counter them, she says.

A senior at Roslyn High School in Roslyn, N.Y., Tiffany presented her results at the Intel Science Talent Search. Run by Society for Science & the Public and sponsored by Intel, this competition brings 40 high school seniors here to Washington every year. These young researchers present their projects to the public and compete for huge cash awards.

A philosopher first described the trolley problem in 1967. Tiffany came across it in a class on ethics — codes of conduct for how people interact with each other. It immediately fascinated her. “There was genuinely no correct answer,” she says.  

Tiffany thought the trolley problem might be a good way to study biases — or the prejudices people have. Biases are often something that we try to hide. We may not even be fully aware that they color our interactions or decisions.

But a scenario like the trolley problem might bring such a bias to light. So Tiffany tried an experiment in social science — a field studying how people act toward each other. She surveyed almost 300 people. She asked each to decide what they would do in the trolley problem. Would they throw the switch and kill one person, or do nothing and allow five to die?

Tiffany varied the identity of the woman waiting on the track. Sometimes the woman was well off, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Other times she wore a waitress uniform. Sometimes she was very attractive. Other times she was plain. And in one condition she no longer was standing, but instead sitting in a wheelchair.

If a woman looks somewhat wealthy — as represented by the business suit — only 24 percent of her participants would sacrifice her. But if she was dressed as a waitress, 59 percent of the people offered to sacrifice her to save the other five. If the woman was attractive, 44 percent of people would sacrifice her. That share climbed to 68 percent if she was plain. And while 54 percent of people would throw the switch to sacrifice a standing woman, the number jumped to 74 percent if she was described as sitting in a wheelchair.

Tiffany is not sure why there were such notable differences in choosing between people who are attractive or plain, rich or poor, disabled or not. But without a doubt, she says, it appears “that we as a society tend to view some lives as less valuable than others.”

The results don’t make our society look very nice, she observes. Still, understanding these hidden biases can be very important. With this information, she explains, “we can target those biases and create a more equal society.”

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

bias   The tendency to hold a particular perspective. Scientists often blind subjects to the details of a test so that their biases will not affect the results.

ethics   A code of conduct for how people interact with others and their environment. To be ethical, people should treat others fairly, avoid cheating or dishonesty in any form and avoid taking or using more than their fair share of resources (which means, to avoid greed). Ethical behavior also would not put others at risk without alerting people to the dangers beforehand and having them choose to accept the potential risks.

philosophy    The study of basic concepts in existence, such as the nature of reality, moral systems or logic. People who perform research in this field are known as philosophers.

scenario     An imagined situation of how events or conditions might play out.

social science    The scientific study of people and their relationships to each other.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.