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Are Smartphones Changing Our Moral Values?

New research suggests your ethics may depend upon your electronics.

Imagine that, sometime later today, you open an email to find a frantic message: A serious ethical dilemma has arisen, either in your work or family life, and you need to make a quick decision.

How will you respond? Will you apply a strict code of right-and-wrong, or take a utilitarian, whatever-works-best approach?

Surprisingly enough, the answer may depend on whether you're communicating on a smartphone or a personal computer.

That’s the conclusion of newly published research, which concludes "people's moral judgments depend on the digital context in which a dilemma is presented."

It reports that, when faced with "high-conflict moral dilemmas"—ones in which the stakes are high, and the time to make a decision is short—we're more likely to opt for a utilitarian solution if we're responding on a smartphone rather than a P.C.

In the journal Computers in Human Behavior, a research team led by City University of London psychologist Albert Barque-Duran describes a series of experiments that provide evidence of this surprising thesis. After all, as the researchers note, "in general, more hurried or time-pressured responses are thought to be aligned with more emotional/gut feeling decisions."

In other words, when we're rushed, we tend to rely on our intuitive responses, which—in the case of moral questions—means falling back onto a set of basic rules we learned in childhood. But, oddly, Barque-Duran and his colleagues found that is not the case when the troubling information is conveyed via smartphone.

Their experiments involve the famous "trolley dilemma," in which one has to make a split-second decision whether to push a large man in front of a moving train—an action that will kill him, but spare the lives of five others who would otherwise be hit.

In one experiment, 954 Americans recruited online were presented with that choice. Half performed the task on a personal computer, while the rest used a smartphone.

"Participants were more likely to opt for sacrificing the fat man to save five men when using a smartphone (33.5 percent) than when using a P.C. (22.3 percent)," the researchers report.

When we're rushed, we tend to rely on our intuitive responses.

Further experiments confirmed and refined these results, replicating them consistently except in one round where participants were given unlimited time to make their choice. Those allowed time to ruminate split pretty much down the middle between a utilitarian and strict-do-not-kill-anyone-ever moral code.

However, under pressure, "some digital contexts—i.e., smartphones—can trigger utilitarian decision-making," Barque-Duran and his colleagues conclude.

Why might this be? The researchers argue using a smartphone produces a "narrowing effect," in which "individuals channel or tunnel their focus toward a main task, and ignore or filter out certain cues."

Given the phone’s tiny screen, and the fact that it is likely being used in a public setting full of visual distractions, users are forced to focus. That results in a less-personal, more abstract way of thinking, which leads to rational—rather than morally rigid—thinking.

At least, that's the thesis. This is one of the first studies of its kind, and many more are likely. Surely, given the sudden ubiquity of smartphones, we need to better understand how they influence the way we think, and the decisions that result.

As of yet, there's no app for that.