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Psychopaths Are Utilitarian: A Classroom Activity

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Want to add a little psychopathy to your neuroscience or emotion lectures? Or add a little emotion and neuroscience to your psychopathy lecture?

Kevin Dutton (University of Oxford), in a 5-minute video, presents a couple versions of the trolley problem and explains the role of emotion in responding to the dilemma. He notes that psychopaths respond in a purely utilitarian way, without emotion getting in the way.

In the first video below, Dutton describes a scenario in which five people will die if a trolley continues on its path but where flipping a switch will send the trolley down a different track killing one person. Pause this video at the 49-second mark and give students an opportunity to think about their decision. Ask students to decide, but not reveal their response. If you use a student response system, ask students to click in with, say, A once they’ve made their decision.

Return to playing the video. Dutton changes the scenario so that now you are faced with a different decision. The trolley, again, on its current course will kill five people. But now there is a “large stranger” in front of you. If you shove this person to their certain death in front of the trolley, the trolley will stop and the five people will be saved.  Pause the video at the 1:38 mark and give students time to mull over their decision. Again, ask students to decide, but not reveal their response. As before, if you use a student response system, ask students to click in with A once they’ve made their decision.

Dutton goes on to say that the first decision involves primarily the cerebral cortex. But when it comes to the second decision of whether to physically push someone to their death, for most people the emotion-heavy amygdala becomes involved and the decision is much more difficult. What about psychopaths? The amygdala stays quiet, and psychopaths don’t feel a difference between the two dilemmas. The decision to shove the stranger feels no different than the decision to flip the switch.

Video Link : 1665

If you have time and wish to continue the topic, Dutton has another 5-minute video that expands on this one. To introduce it, ask students if there are any benefits to having someone who is willing and able to sacrifice one person, regardless of circumstances, to save many people? If time allows, ask students to discuss in pairs or small groups, and then ask for volunteers to share their responses.

Now, play this video.

Video Link : 1666

After this, students will have a lot to think about and may not be able to focus on anything else you have to say. It may be best to time this activity so it ends when your class session ends.

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.