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People are more likely to protect women than men

Chivalry isn’t dead.

Image: Shutterstock/Everett Collection

PEOPLE NATURALLY CARE more about a woman’s welfare than a man’s when it comes to both the saving of lives and pursuit of self-interest.

A study by post-doctoral students at New York University shows most people are hard-wired to put women first.

The research, conducted at Cambridge University’s Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and Columbia University, appears this week in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In one experiment, study subjects read one of three versions of a “Trolley Dilemma” – a commonly used technique in psychology studies and akin to the “Lifeboat Question”.

In the trolley scenario, subjects read one of three versions of the dilemma, where each vignette described a man, woman, or gender-neutral bystander on the bridge. The participants were then asked how willing they were to “push the [man/woman/person] onto the path of the oncoming trolley” in order to save five others farther down the track.

The results showed that both female and male subjects were much more likely to push the male bystander or one of unspecified gender than they were the female bystander.

In a second experiment, a new group of subjects was given £20 and told that any money they held at the end of the experiment would be multiplied up to 10-fold. However, there was a catch.

The subjects were told that if they decided to keep the money, other individuals would be subjected to mild electric shocks. However, if they gave up the money, it would prevent the shocks from being administered.

As with the first experiment, women were less likely than men to be subjected to shocks, suggesting an aversion to harming females–even when this came at the subjects’ own financial expense.

A third experiment was a survey in which a new set of more than 350 subjects was asked a series of questions relevant to the study’s focus — specifically, the researchers aimed to sort out the thought process that might explain the behaviors exhibited in the first two experiments.

Overall, the answers of both female and male respondents suggested that social norms account for greater harming behavior toward a male than a female target–women are less tolerant to pain, it’s unacceptable to harm females for personal gain, and society endorses chivalrous behavior.

“There is indeed a gender bias in these matters: society perceives harming women as more morally unacceptable,” explains co-author Dean Mobbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University.

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