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Is Doing Harm the Same as Allowing It to Happen?

Is Doing Harm the Same as Allowing It to Happen?What is worse: Actively causing harm or allowing it to occur?

The popular notion is that people judge acts that cause harm more harshly than willful inaction that allows the same harm to occur.

A new study based on brain scans shows that people make the moral distinction between the two automatically. Additionally, researchers found that it requires conscious reasoning to decide that active and passive behaviors that are equally harmful are equally wrong.

“When you see somebody actively harm another person, that triggers a strong automatic response,” said Brown University psychologist Dr. Fiery Cushman.

“You don’t have to think very deliberately about it, you just perceive it as morally wrong. When a person allows harm that they could easily prevent, that actually requires more carefully controlled deliberative thinking [to view as wrong].”

Researchers used an example of two figure skaters competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. In one instance, one of the skaters loosens the blade on her rival’s skates, while in another case, that same skater notices the blade is loose and fails to warn anyone.

In both cases, the rival skater loses the competition and is seriously injured. Whether it was by acting, or willfully failing to act, the overly competitive skater did the same harm.

In a study published online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Cushman and his colleagues presented 35 volunteers with 24 moral dilemmas and lapses like the one involving the figure skaters.

The volunteers read an introduction to the incident, a description of the character’s moral choices, and a description of how the character behaved. Then they rated the moral wrongness of the behavior on a scale from 1 to 5.

As the participants read and rated each incident, the researchers tracked the blood flow in the volunteers’ brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging scans.

Cushman expected to confirm what he had observed in previous behavioral experiments: That people employed conscious reasoning to arrive at the usual feeling that actively caused harm is morally worse than passively caused harm.

The researchers compared the brain scans of people who judged active harm to be worse than passive harm to the scans of people who judged them as morally equal.

His assumption was that those who saw a moral difference did so by explicit reasoning, so those people should have exhibited greater activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex than those who saw no moral distinction. But to his surprise, the greater levels of DPFC activity lay with those who saw active harm and passive harm as morally the same.

“The people who are showing this distinction are actually the ones who show the least evidence of deliberative, careful, controlled thinking,” he said, “whereas the people who show no difference between actions and omissions show the most evidence of careful deliberative controlled thinking.”

Cushman said his new findings may be useful because they describe the mechanisms underlying how society arrives at moral judgments. He suggests that the extra thought required to judge passive harm as morally wrong is analogous to a blind spot.

Much as drivers learn to look over their shoulders before changing lanes, people may want to examine how they feel about passive harm, he said. Especially in real-life situations, they may still conclude that active harm is worse, he said, adding they’ll at least have compensated for the automatic bias his research suggests is there.

Source: Brown University

Is Doing Harm the Same as Allowing It to Happen?

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Is Doing Harm the Same as Allowing It to Happen?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 6 Dec 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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