By Sean Creeden
Five men are working on a train track, unaware that a train is speeding toward them. The only way to save them is to pull a switch and divert the train to a sidetrack. However, someone is working on the sidetrack.
You must make a decision: Act to save five, but you'll kill one. Don't act, and five will die.
Tough call, isn't it?
Yet some people, like Syria's Bashar Al-Assad, accused of killing hundreds of his own people in a chemical weapons attack in August, can make decisions that seem barbaric in which no one wins.
Social psychologists have some theories about how and why people make the decisions they do.
"There's a huge field of judgment and decision-making in cognitive psychology and cognitive science that tries to explain why and how we make decisions and how we make judgments about certain things," said Dr. Amit Almor, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina.
The impending disaster with the train, known to psychologists and philosophers as the Trolley Problem, has been intriguing researchers since it was introduced by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967. Intended to gauge people's morality in decision-making, it forces people to factor in their personal values when they determine how many people will die.
In the simplest version of the Trolley Problem, people are asked whether they will sacrifice one to save five.
"Turns out people are willing to do that," said Dr. Douglas Wedell, interim chairman of the University of South Carolina Department of Psychology.
In a more formidable version of the Trolley Problem, the switch is gone. The only way to stop the train is to push a person onto the tracks, which kills him but saves the five workmen.
Wedell says that while people are willing to indirectly sacrifice one for five, people are not willing to physically use someone else to save others.
"Everyone says, ‘No, you can't murder this person to save five,'" Wedell said.
Almor said that it all goes back to our values.
The decision-making process in the Trolley Problem tests the theory known as utilitarianism, in which the consequences of an action must result in the best possible situation, despite the methods used to meet that end.
"If you take the strongest version of the utilitarian theory, you will always weigh two options and choose the one that maximizes your personal utility," Almor said.
Almor said testing that theory is easy when everyone, based on their own self-interest, can agree on a clear and ideal solution to a problem. For a problem like the train, or even the situation in Syria, Almor said, that there is no ideal solution.
"At some point you will have to inject your personal values and your personal beliefs," Almor said. "It gets complicated once you put ethics and morality into your computation of utility."
Wedell said that when people do moral decision-making, they reject the utilitarian approach. For Syria's Assad, Wedell said, he is ignoring moral decision-making.
"He's putting value on his own position," Wedell said. "He may be saying that if I'm in power, millions will benefit. So this rebel faction, I'll wipe them out."
The situation in Syria changed in 2012 when President Barack Obama said that there would be consequences if Assad crossed a "red line" and began using chemical weapons.
Syria's decision to later use chemical weapons could be explained by what is known as the balance theory, Wedell said. If the balance theory is applied to relationships, people don't play nice with the enemies of their friends - in essence, balancing their alliances against their adversaries.
"If Syria does what we say, then they think they are seen as submitting to us," Wedell said. "So in many ways in diplomacy you don't want to put out those red lines, because you're almost sure of having them test those, especially if it's seen as a challenge to their independence and sovereignty."
It is very much like a child seeking to test the boundaries put up by his or her parents. Wedell believes that Assad is just looking to get away with whatever he can.
"On the surface, it looks like childish behavior," Wedell said. "It goes back to treating Assad as a kid. You have to have consistent and immediate punishment."
The international community has since responded, and on Oct. 2 United Nations weapons inspectors began their mission to disable Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.
When it comes to Syria, however, history's facts may have more sway than psychology's theories.
Dr. Josef Olmert, adjunct professor of political science at the University of South Carolina and a former negotiator for Israel, attributes Assad's actions to being a minority Alawite in a majority Sunni nation.
"In the modern history of Syria, it is the case that if you are a minority and you want to survive, you are either being totally oppressed or you have to be in control," Olmert said. Assad's family has been in power in Syria for more than 40 years.
"Of course, the Assad regime knows that out-of-control settling of scores between Sunnis and Alawites might lead to the extermination of the Alawite community. Many Sunnis, on the other end, feel that more years of Alawite control will lead to their extermination."
Olmert said other minorities, like Christians, support the Assad regime because they consider themselves in a "coalition of minorities against the Sunni-Arab majority."
"The war for survival is all this historic baggage and the legacy of 1,300 years of oppression on both sides," Olmert said. "It's as sad as that."
Psychologists Wedell and Almor agree that there may not be an ideal solution.
"In this case, it's not really easy to take a theory of how people make judgments and sort of analyze the decision-making process," Almor said. "Otherwise, you wouldn't have needed any sort of parliamentary process or government.
"It would just be some clerk calculating numbers and doing the right thing."