Moral sense is important for determining human behaviour. Moral sense becomes crucial in operational environments in which choices must be made that have complex moral implications in highly stressful situations. Behavioural and neuroimaging findings have shown the existence of gender-related differences in moral reasoning. The present study aimed to investigate whether gender affects moral reasoning and emotional state. We also investigated whether empathy, decision-making and emotional regulation strategies had a role in determining gender differences in solving moral dilemmas. We found that moral judgements and emotional engagement were significantly different. Women were less prone than men to accept a moral violation, such as killing someone to save their own lives and the lives of others. Furthermore, women were more emotionally involved and experienced dysphoric emotions more often than men. Our results shed light upon the mechanisms that affect moral reasoning and determine gender differences in solving moral dilemmas.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Data Availability Material
Generated statement: The datasets generated for this study are available on request to the corresponding author, and Material are included in the manuscript/supplementary files.
Agerström, J., Björklund, F., & Carlsson, R. (2011). Gender differences in implicit moral orientation associations: The justice and care debate revisited. Current Research in Social Psychology, 17, 10–18.
Aldrich, D. P., & Kage, R. (2003). Mars and Venus at twilight: A critical investigation of moralism, age effects, and sex differences. Political Psychology, 24, 23–40.
Aleman, A., & Swart, M. (2008). Sex differences in neural activation to facial expressions denoting contempt and disgust. PLoS ONE, 3(11), e3622. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0003622.
Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004). The empathy quotient: An investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism and normal sex differences. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 34, 163–175.
Bauman, C. W., McGraw, A. P., Bartels, D. M., & Warren, C. (2014). Revisiting external validity: Concerns about trolley problems and other sacrificial dilemmas in moral psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8(9), 536–554. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12131.
Beal, C. L., Garrod, A., Ruben, K., & Stewart, T. L. (1997). Children’s moral orientations: Does the gender of dilemma character make a difference? Journal of Moral Education, 26, 45–58.
Betsch, C., & Iannello, P. (2010). Measuring individual differences in intuitive and deliberate decision making styles: A comparison of different measures. In A. Glockner & C. Witteman (Eds.), Tracing intuition: recent methods in measuring intuitive and deliberate processes in decision making (pp. 251–267). London: Psychology Press.
Betsch, C., & Kunz, J. J. (2008). Individual strategy preferences and decisional fit. Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, 21, 532–555. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.600.
Bjorklund, F. (2003). Differences in the justification of choices in moral dilemmas: Effects of gender time pressure and dilemma seriousness. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 44, 459–466.
Boccia, M., Cordellieri, P., Piccardi, L., Ferlazzo, F., Guariglia, C., & Giannini, A. M. (2014). Gender differences in solving moral dilemma: Are there any implications for experts in aerospace flight? Italian Journal of Aerospace Medicine, 10, 12–23. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-014-0739-7.
Boccia, N., Verde, P., Angelino, G., Carrozzo, P., Vecchi, D., Piccardi, L., et al. (2017a). Effect of professional expertise and exposure to everyday life decision-making on moral choices. Neuroscience Letters, 654, 80–85.
Boccia, M., Dacquino, C., Piccardi, L., Cordellieri, P., Guariglia, C., Ferlazzo, F., et al. (2017b). Neural foundation of human moral reasoning: an ALE meta-analysis about the role of personal perspective. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 11(1), 278–292.
Botvinik, M., Jha, A. P., Bylsma, L. M., Fabian, S. A., Solomon, P. E., & Prkachin, K. M. (2005). Viewing facial expression of pain engages cortical areas involved in the direct experience of pain. Neuroimage, 25, 312–319.
Brabeck, M., & Shore, E. (2003). Gender differences in intellectual and moral development? The evidence that refutes the claim. In J. Demick & C. Andreoletti (Eds.), Handbook of adult development (pp. 351–368). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Colby, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1987). The measurement of moral judgment (Vol. 1). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Davis, Mark H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. Journal Supplemental Abstract Service Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.
Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113–126.
Friedman, W. J., Robinson, A. B., & Friedman, B. L. (1981). Sex differences in moral judgments? A test of Gilligan’s theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11, 37–46.
Fumagalli, M., Ferrucci, R., Mameli, F., Marceglia, S., Mrakic-Sposta, S., Zago, S., et al. (2010). Gender-related differences in moral judgements. Cognitive Process, 11, 219–226.
Garmon, L. C., Basinger, K. S., Gregg, V. R., & Gibbs, J. C. (1996). Gender differences in stage and expression of moral judgment. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 42(3), 418–437.
Gibbs, J. C., Arnold, K. D., & Burkhart, J. E. (1984). Sex differences in the expression of moral judgment. Child Development, 55, 1040–1043.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Gilligan, C., & Attanucci, J. (1988). Two moral orientations: Gelnder differences and similarities. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 34(3), 223–237.
Greene, J. D. (2009). Dual-process morality and the personal/impersonal distinction: A reply to McGuire, Langdon, Coltheart and Mackenzie. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 581–584.
Greene, J., & Haidt, J. (2002). How (and where) does moral judgement work? Trend in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 517–523.
Greene, J. D., Nystrom, L. E., Engell, A. D., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2004). The neural bases of cognitive conflict and control in moral judgment. Neuron, 44, 389–400.
Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). And fMRI investigation of emotional engagement. Moral Judgment Science, 293, 2105–2108.
Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(2), 340–362.
Gump, L. S., Baker, R. C., & Roll, S. (2000). Cultural and gender differences in moral judgment: A study of Mexican Americans and Anglo-Americans Hispanic. Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 22, 78–93.
Hareli, S., Shomrat, N., & Hess, U. (2009). Emotional versus neutral expressions and perceptions of social dominance and submissiveness. Emotion, 9, 378–384.
Harenski, C. L., Antonenko, O., Shane, M. S., & Kiehl, K. A. (2008). Gender differences in neural mechanism underlying moral sensitivity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 3(4), 13–321.
Harenski, C. L., & Hamann, S. (2006). Neural correlates of regulating negative emotions related to moral violations. Neuroimage, 30, 313–324.
Indick, W., Kim, J., Oelberg, B., & Semino, L. (2000). Gender differences in moral judgment: Is non-consequential reasoning a factor? Current Research in Social Psychology, 5(20), 1–13.
Jaffee, S., & Hyde, J. S. (2000). Gender differences in moral orientation: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 703–726.
Kohlberg, L. (1964a). Development of moral character and moral ideology. In M. L. Hoffman & L. W. Hoffman (Eds.), Review of child development research (pp. 383–430). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Kohlberg, L. (1964b). Development of moral character and moral ideology. In M. L. Hoffman & L. W. Hoffman (Eds.), Review of child development research (pp. 381–431). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Lee, A. Y., & Aaker, J. L. (2004). Bringing the frame into focus: The influence of regulatory fit on processing fluency and persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 205–218.
Lee, A. Y., Keller, P., & Sternthal, B. (2010). Value from regulatory construal fit: The persuasive impact of fit between consumer goals and message concreteness. Journal of Consumer Research, 36, 735–747.
McGuire, J., Langdon, R., Coltheart, M., & Mackenzie, C. (2009). A reanalysis of the personal/impersonal distinction in moral psychology. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 577–580.
Mikhail, J. (2007). Universal moral grammar: Theory, evidence and the future. Trend in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 143–152.
Moll, J. R., de Oliveira-Souza, R., Krueger, F., & Grafman, J. (2005). The neural basis of human moral cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6, 799–809.
Noddings, N. (2003). Caring. A feminist approach to ethics and moral education. California: University of California Press.
Robertson, D., Snarey, J., & Ousley, O. (2007). The neural processing of moral sensitivity to issues of justice and care. Neuropsychologia, 45, 755–766.
Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J. P., Stephan, K. E., Dolan, R. J., & Frirth, C. D. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466–469.
Verde, P., Piccardi, L., Bianchini, F., Trivelloni, P., Guariglia, C., & Tomao, E. (2013). Gender effects on mental rotation in pilots vs nonpilots. Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, 84, 726–729.
Walker, L. J., de Vries, B., & Trevethan, S. D. (1987). Moral stages and moral orientations in real-life and hypotethical dilemmas. Child Development, 58, 842–858.
Wark, G. R., & Krebs, D. L. (1966). Gender and dilemma differences in real-life moral judgment. Developmental Psychology, 32, 220–230.
Weber, E. U., Blais, A. R., & Betz, N. E. (2002). A domain-specific risk-attitude scale: Measuring risk perceptions and risk behaviors. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 15, 263–290.
Witkin, H. A., Oltman, P. K., Raskin, E., & Karp, S. A. (1971). Group embedded figures test manual. Palo Alto: Counsulting Psychologist Press.
Yacker, N., & Weinberg, S. L. (1990). Care and justice moral orientations: A scale for assessment. Journal of Personality Assessment, 55, 18–27.
The authors received no specific funding for this work.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
Human and animal Rights Statement
Studies involving animal subjects. Generated statement: No animal studies are presented in this manuscript. Studies involving human subjects. Generated statement: The study was approved by the Ethics Review Board of the Department of Psychology, “La Sapienza” University of Rome. Inclusion of identifiable human data. Generated statement: No potentially identifiable human images or data is presented in this study.
Consent to participate
Participants were informed of the aims and purpose of the study, as well as their participation rights (e.g. confidentiality of responses, allowance to leave the study at any point without any consequences), in advance of data collection. Thus, written informed consent was obtained by all the participants. None of the participants had serious accidents with traumatic consequences.
Consent for Publication
All authors who have contributed to the submitted manuscript confirm that they have read and agreed to the conditions of this submission statement, including that:
They agree to publication of this manuscript;
the submission is original and has not been published previously;
all permissions have been obtained;
the manuscript includes all the relevant statements and acknowledgements.
The authors declare that for the analysis they used IBM SPSS Statistics software, licensed by the Department of Psychology of the Sapienza University of Rome.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
Cordellieri, P., Boccia, M., Piccardi, L. et al. Gender Differences in Solving Moral Dilemmas: Emotional Engagement, Care and Utilitarian Orientation. Psychol Stud 65, 360–369 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12646-020-00573-9
- Gender moral difference
- Moral judgment
- Moral dilemmas
- Moral justice