UW News

May 6, 2020

Should you help a sick person? UW psychology, computer science faculty study ‘moral dilemmas’ of COVID-19

UW News

Let’s say you have a small stash of face masks in your cupboard, set aside for you and your family.

Meanwhile, you’ve read news stories highlighting the urgent PPE needs of your local hospital.

Do you donate some of your masks to the hospital? All of them? None?

Such is a moral dilemma under COVID-19, and one posed by a new international study led by the University of Washington. The five- to seven-minute, anonymous online study is designed to gauge the perception of ethical situations as the pandemic evolves around the world. Respondents take the survey, add basic demographic details, as well as information about current restrictions in place in their community, and learn at the end how their answers compare to others.

“People are making important decisions, big and small, in this time of COVID-19. Many find themselves facing moral dilemmas about ‘what’s the right thing to do’ in this situation,” said Andrew Meltzoff, a UW psychology professor and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “This helps us learn about similarities and differences in the opinions and feelings among people as we all cope with this unique event.”

Elderly man opening front door to find a bag of food on his doorstep

Whether to help a neighbor during COVID-19 is one of the questions in a new moral dilemmas study launched by the University of Washington.Andre Ouellet/Unsplash

There are no right or wrong answers, researchers say, because the way each person responds may reflect the norms of where they live.

Ultimately, the research aims to help inform the ways artificial intelligence can become more attuned to cultural variations in how people think about decisions in health care settings, said Rajesh Rao, a professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and a co-director of the Center for Neurotechnology,

“There is an urgent need to answer this question given the growing use of AI in medical contexts,” Rao said. Human moral values likely vary from one culture to another, so “AI systems need to ‘learn’ culture-specific moral values by interacting with humans, similar to how children learn their moral values.”

The scenarios in the survey are based on classic dilemmas posed in ethics, social psychology and game theory, Rao said. In two situations, the respondent is asked to imagine themselves as a doctor and to make a potentially life-altering choice. In other scenarios, the respondent is a passer-by or a neighbor presented with a not-so-simple opportunity to help.

The survey is available on the virtual lab LabintheWild, which Katharina Reinecke, an associate professor in the Allen School and co-leader of the study with Meltzoff and Rao, created for conducting behavioral studies with people around the world. So far the moral dilemmas survey has been translated into five languages, including Spanish, German and Farsi (with more to come), and participants have come from about 70 countries. Researchers expect trends in responses to reflect geography and culture, Reinecke said.

Researchers expect some differences among age groups, as well: The survey is aimed at people across a wide range of ages. LabintheWild doesn’t usually exclude anyone, Reinecke added, but the difficult nature of the pandemic, and the scenarios presented in the survey, prompted researchers to design it to be of interest to participants from 14 years of age to adults well past retirement. The researchers wanted to design the questions to be interesting to a broad set of participants, because the pandemic affects everyone in society.

“We hope to look at responses according to the country of the participant and their age in order to learn how people are thinking about this once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Reinecke. “This will help us be better prepared if this comes around again. And one feature of the work that people find fun is that we have a chart at the end where people can compare their answers to those given by others around the world. Most people find this fascinating and informative.”

The study is funded by the UW, the Templeton World Charity Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


For more information, contact Reinecke at reinecke@cs.washington.edu, Rao at rao@cs.washington.edu or Meltzoff at meltzoff@uw.edu.