The Chinese and American Students and the Trolley Problem: A Cross-cultural Study

Sharaf Rehman (1) , Joanna Dzionek-Kozłowsk (2)
(1) Department of Economics & Sociology, 41 Rewolucji 1905 r, Room A 409, 90-214 Lodz, Poland , Poland
(2) Department of Economics & Sociology, 41 Rewolucji 1905 r, Room A 409, 90-214 Lodz, Poland , Poland


People are routinely faced with making decisions. Some decisions are made quickly and easily while others may take reflection and research. Scholars in numerous disciplines such as behavioral economics, marketing, philosophy, psychology, and sociology have attempted to identify the variables that impact people’s ethical/moral choices in the decision-making process. Still, the question of whether people use their heads (rationale) or their hearts (emotions) to make decisions remains unanswered. The present exploratory study hopes to contribute to the discussion on the influence of culture on people’s choices. Working with samples from two cultures (China and USA) and using three variants of the Trolley Problem (Foot 1967), the participants’ responses are used to identify the similarities and differences between their choices. The data suggest that moral decisions are linked to culture. The Chinese participants who are raised in a collectivistic culture seem to have a greater concern for others; the American respondents as products of an individualistic culture are less inclined to interfere in the lives of other people. The data also reveal that gender plays a role in altruistic behavior. Women are more likely to engage in helpful behavior than man. Lastly, the paper discusses the inconsistencies in choices by the respondents.

Full text article

Generated from XML file


Arrow, K. (1963). Social Choice and Individual Values. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press.

Bleske-Rechek, A., L.A. Nelson, J.P. Baker, M.W. Remiker & S.J. Brandt (2010). Evolution and the Trolley Problem: People save five over one unless the one is young, genetically related, or a romantic partner. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 4(3): 115–127. DOI:

Bourget, D. & D.J. Chalmers (2014). What do philosophers believe? Philosophical Studies, 170(3): 465–500. DOI:

Damasio, A. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Edmonds, D. (2014). Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us About Right and Wrong. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press. DOI:

Foot, P. (1967). The problem of abortion and the doctrine of the double effect. Oxford Review, 5: 5–15.

Gigerenzer, G. (2002). Calculated Risks: How to Know When the Numbers Deceive You. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Goodall, N.J. (2016). Away from trolley problems and toward risk management. Applied Artificial Intelligence, 30(8): 810–821. DOI:

Greene, J. D., R.B. Sommerville, L.E. Nystrom, J.M. Darley & J.D. Cohen (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgement. Science. 293: 2105–2108. DOI:

Hofstede, G., G.J. Hofstede & M. Minkov (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw Hill.

Kahneman, D. & A. Tversky (1996). On the reality of cognitive illusions. Psychological Review, 103(3): 582–591. DOI:

Lanteri, A., C. Chelini & S. Rizzello (2008). An experimental investigation of emotions and reasoning in the Trolley Problem. Journal of Business Ethics, 83: 789–804. DOI:

Mints, P. (2019). The Trump decision on US tariffs and the Trolley Problem. Renewable Energy World, January 23, 2019. (accessed July 29, 2020).

Moore, D. (2010). The Basic Practice of Statistics. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Nyholm, S. & J. Smids (2016). The ethics of accident-algorithms for self-driving cars: An applied trolley problem? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 19: 1275–1289. DOI:

Rehman, S. (2012). Decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. The American Association of Behavioral and Social Sciences Journal, 16(5): 29-45.

Rehman, S. & J. Dzionek-Kozłowska (2018). The Trolley Problem revisited: An exploratory study. Annales: Ethics in Economic Life, 21(3): 23–32. DOI:

Savage, L.J. (1954). The Foundations of Statistics. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Simon, H.A. (1957). Models of Man, Social and Rational: Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Simon, H.A. (1972). Theories of bounded rationality. In C.B. McGuire & R. Radner (eds.), Decisions and Organization: A Volume in Honor of Jacob Marschak (161–176). Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co.

Singer, P. (2005). Ethics and intuitions. The Journal of Ethics, 9: 331–352. DOI:

Steinbock, B. & A. Norcross (eds.) (1994). Killing and Letting Die (2nd Edition). New York: Fordham University Press. DOI:

Thomson, J.J. (1976). Killing, letting die, and the Trolley Problem. The Monist, 59(2): 204–217. DOI:

Thomson, J.J. (1985). The Trolley Problem. The Yale Law Journal, 94(6): 1395–1415. DOI:

Tversky, A. & D. Kahneman (1974), Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185(4157): 1124–1131. DOI:


Sharaf Rehman (Primary Contact)
Joanna Dzionek-Kozłowsk
Author Biographies

Sharaf Rehman, Department of Economics & Sociology, 41 Rewolucji 1905 r, Room A 409, 90-214 Lodz, Poland

Sharaf Rehman is professor of communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and guest professor at the University of Lodz, Poland. For the past forty years, he has taught communication (film and theater) in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. He served as the founding department chair for communication at the University of Texas-Brownsville and as associate dean for the College of International Communication at Lynn University, Florida. His research has appeared in numerous international journals in the areas of mass communication, intercultural studies, marketing, sociology, economics, and ethics.

Joanna Dzionek-Kozłowsk, Department of Economics & Sociology, 41 Rewolucji 1905 r, Room A 409, 90-214 Lodz, Poland

Joanna Dzionek-Kozłowska is professor of economics at the University of Lodz, Poland. She holds a PhD in economics. Her research interests include history of economic thought, philosophy of economics, ethics, and the impact of economics education on student behavior. For the last several years, she has been researching the influence of economics education on collaboration and teamwork. Her most recent book, Model of Homo Oeconomicus: Its Origin, Evolution, and Influence on Economic Life appeared in 2018. She is editor-in-chief of Annales: Ethics in Economic Life, a quarterly publication from the University of Lodz.

Rehman, S., & Dzionek-Kozłowsk, J. (2020). The Chinese and American Students and the Trolley Problem: A Cross-cultural Study. Journal of Intercultural Communication, 20(2), 31–41.

Article Details

Smart Citations via scite_
  • Abstract 171212
  • PDF 106