Would you rather electrocute someone or be shocked yourself?

Updated: Aug 9, 2018

What people say they'd do isn't always what they would do, especially when there's money at stake.

Once upon a time, aspiring traders answered the following. ‘Would you prefer to be beaten up, beat somebody up, or run around the block naked?’ In the days that you could ask this sort of question, when star dealers were known as ‘big swinging dicks’, perhaps they hired the candidate who replied that he would walk slowly down the street calling ‘Come and get it laydeez’.


The question is in the tradition of magazine quizzes that attempt to judge our character, our ethics and our taboos by comparing what we would be willing to undergo with what we’d be willing to do to others. For a million, would you eat your faeces, sleep with Trump, cut off your pinky, slap a baby, poison a neighbour’s dog, punch your father, pimp your sister? Donate a kidney, or push a button that killed someone you’ll never meet?


We answer these posers by posing. The job candidate who searches his soul in the interview room and admits he’ll reluctantly take the beating just isn’t going to cut it. The teen who thinks she’s learnt something deep and meaningful about herself and her friends from their scores in the quiz is mistaken. I want to know how people really answer the question when there’s money on the table. I’m not alone.


Unfortunately, university ethics committees won’t let you chop off participants’ fingers. Psychology department budgets aren’t large enough to fund a politician’s harem. When psychologists want to hurt someone without fear of arrest or dismissal, they reach for the Digitimer DS5 bipolar constant current stimulator.


Dr Molly Crockett and her colleagues in Oxford and London had one of these. It’s a black box, about the size of a ream of paper. On the right-hand side of the box is a yellow triangle with an exclamation mark, and next to the triangle is a bright orange switch. You attach a cable to the box, and fasten the other end of the lead to the back of volunteers’ wrists.


In the Materials and Methods section of academic papers, there’s a lot of detached discussion about the ‘titration process’ and fitting responses to a ‘sigmoid function’. But the truth is, you flick the orange switch and electric current flows from the box into the subject, shocking them. You ask the now regretful volunteer to rate the pain on a 0 to 10 scale (0=no pain, 10=intolerable), adjust the voltage up a bit, supress a manic laugh, and hit the orange button again.


You go all the way up to level ten, because you need to fully fit the sigmoid function, and you deliver each shock three times because that improves the robustness of your fitting. If you’re a dentist because you like inflicting pain, you’ve missed your calling.


Once you’ve completed the titration process, you can break the good news to your subjects. In the main part of the experiment, all shocks will be a mere level eight.


In this study, the researchers paired off their volunteers. One of them was designated the decider, and the other sat out of sight awaiting their fate. The decider made a series of choices: they could earn money, but someone would get fried.


One trial might be worth fifteen pounds, but the decider would have to suffer eight shocks. Another might be worth just twelve pounds, and come with eleven shocks, but those shocks would be given to the person waiting behind the door. Yes or no?


If you’re a dentist, a psychologist or a superstar trader, perhaps you’d let your partner receive shocks until their eyeballs popped out. Easy money.


That’s not what the researchers found in their volunteers. People were willing to receive shocks for cash. They were also willing to get paid for others’ pain. But the amount they demanded in return for letting the psychologists wiggle the orange switch was less when it was their own arm attached to the DS5 than when it was someone else’s.


Superstar traders believe they’re a bit different to ordinary folk. It takes something special to profit from shorting a company which employs thousands. They’re right. And if they want to recruit the next generation of bright young things to fleece the muppets in the market, then a Digitimer could be the best investment they make. At any rate, interviews would be livelier.


For more insights into the quirky way your brain works, read Chris Paley's Unthink.


Crockett et al. 2014; Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making