Men vs Women: Who Would Murder Hitler with a Time Machine?

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Sorta transcript:

If you had a time machine, would you use it to go back to when Hitler was a young artist so you could murder him and prevent the future deaths of millions of people?

Researchers in the US, Canada, and Germany recently asked this question to more than 6,000 people to determine if there were any major gender differences in terms of both philosophy and critical thinking abilities.

They found that there were differences in philosophy: women tended to be deontologists, meaning they placed more emphasis on the morality of the action they were taking and thus were less likely to kill Hitler, while men tended to be utilitarians, meaning they placed more emphasis on the overall greater good their action might have, meaning they were more likely to kill Hitler.

It’s worth noting that the other tested characteristic, whether there was a difference in rational reasoning, found absolutely no difference. Women were just as rational as men in evaluating their choices and understanding the consequences of various decisions.

But to get back to the Hitler-killing bit, you may be aware that this is really just a slightly less possible alternative to the famous Trolley Problem, in which subjects are asked to let a trolley crash and kill 5 people or flip a switch and have it go down another track that would only kill one. In those tests, about 90% of all people say they’d flip the switch, choosing the utilitarian philosophical path over the deontological.

The problem with both the trolley and the time machine are that these situations are so completely impossible and divorced from real people’s day-to-day lives that it’s difficult to really say whether our answers to them are in any way indicative of how we actually feel. Just last year, some psychologists published a paper criticizing these moral dilemmas, pointing out that these amusing examples can only make people even more divorced from a decision they’d actually make in a real-life scenario.

So by using a scenario involving a long-time joke about killing Hitler, this study may have inadvertently made people less likely to respond in a real-life way, and thus more likely to fall back on stereotypes that are expected – i.e., men are more likely to take the colder, violent path that saves millions, while women are more likely to worry more about causing any kind of direct harm.

As for me, if I could go back in time to when Hitler was a kid, I’d get the guy some art lessons, and maybe some hardcore sensitivity training. It’s the best of both worlds! But yeah, if the sensitivity training didn’t work I’d shoot that asshole in the face, no problem.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. I’ve long been of the opinion that I would not murder Hitler largely because it’s impossible to know what else in the future that would affect. Maybe you kill Hitler, some other Nazi comes to power instead, isn’t completely nuts, and therefore actually wins and exterminates 12 million Jews, for example. Similarly, the great man view of history is deeply flawed. It ignores the effects of the great mass of the people on historical events and assumes, falsely, that a handful of great men (another of its flaws being that it’s usually men) steer the events of history far in excess of their real influence.

    So even if I were a utilitarian, I wouldn’t kill Hitler.

    1. Maybe you kill Hitler, some other Nazi comes to power instead, isn’t completely nuts, and therefore actually wins and exterminates 12 million Jews, for example.

      Any attemp to kill Hitler always backfires. I though everyone knew that. Otherwise, we would all be, like, “Hitler who?”

  2. snarp’s comment reminds me of an episode from the Twilight Zone reboot in the early 2000s. (Spoilers, if anyone cares.) The premise is that a one-way time machine has been developed, and a young woman is to go back in time to Hitler’s infancy, be hired as his nanny, and kill him when he poses no threat of fighting back. At the end, she holds the baby and jumps into a river, killing them both. But the baby’s father recognizes what’s happened and doesn’t want his wife to know that their son is dead. He has a beggar sell him her child, who is the one who will become Adolf Hitler, meaning that it was all for nothing.

    1. I always think of the solution to time travel paradoxes being that you can never actually change anything in the past. Everything you did in the past, you always did in the past. Of course, that would mean you were destined to one day travel back in time, therefore everything in the future is already written, but that kind of makes sense in a world with time travel, too.

      A more scientifically accurate solution to time travel paradoxes is probably that it’s fundamentally impossible to travel backwards in time.

  3. Especially if you know a bit of history, know about the climate in Germany at that time, the thought that killing Hitler would prevent the Holocaust becomes completely ludicrous…

    Was that just a yes/no question in the study? Or did they actually, you know, talk to the people about their reasoning?

    Me, I’d never use a time machine, for whatever purpose. The chances of messing up something, and the consequences thereof, are just too high. I’d straight-up destroy the time machine instead.

    And being German myself, it’s highly likely that changing anything would prevent me from being born. What are the consequences of creating a paradox? I don’t know, and I don’t care to find out.

    1. Now, if killing Hitler prevented WWII and the Holocaust, I would not exist. My maternal grandparents met in French emigration, my paternal ones in a field hospital in the Soviet Union.
      So I kill Hitler, WWII doesn’t happen, I don’t exist, I cannot go back to kill Hitler, WWII happens…
      I can understand why it gives Janeway headaches.

  4. Without Hitler, would we have collectively learned our lesson about the horrors of genocide? I’d love to think so, but my faith in humanity doesn’t go that far.

    1. Ah.
      A) have “we collectively learned our lesson about the horrors of genocide”?
      Some of us never had a lesson to learn there. Some of ‘us’ still do. So maybe no change there.
      B) Does the ‘lesson’ learnt from the holocaust about genocide make the genocide worth it?
      I don’t know tbh. I think it it was me, I would snuff him out. But then I am a man!

      1. I’ll be honest, I don’t know.

        I’d be terrified what an industrialized genocide in 2015 would look like though.

  5. If I have a 2 way time machine there is no reason to kill Hitler. I could simply relocate him to a remote prison facility in the future.
    And if I keep him unconscious he whole time I have the option of restoring the timeline if necessary.

    And I am not entirely sure humanity has learned the don’t genocide people lesson.

  6. I wouldn’t kill Hitler either. I don’t think it would be the solution. I would instead go back and try to stop the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand… I think that would be a more interesting outcome.

    @KellyM FTW! BTW :)

  7. LOL. mrmisconception! The same geeky part of me that got your joke–Trekkie/Trekker alert!–makes me leery of this scenario. I’ve read too many time travel stories to say, sure kill the asshole! And I’m Jewish!

  8. The original study didn’t simply ask “Would you kill Hitler?” In fact, the original study isn’t even a study. It’s a meta-analysis. The Hitler scenario is just a headline grabbing example used in this press release.

    “A meta-analytic re-analysis of 40 studies with 6,100 participants indicated that men showed a stronger preference for utilitarian over deontological judgments than women when the two principles implied conflicting decisions (d = 0.52). PD further revealed that women exhibited stronger deontological inclinations than men (d = 0.57), while men exhibited only slightly stronger utilitarian inclinations than women (d = 0.10). The findings suggest that gender differences in moral dilemma judgments are due to differences in affective responses to harm rather than cognitive evaluations of outcomes.”

    The last sentence is fascinating. They’re saying women apply utilitarian thinking to the problem. They understand the consequences of the decision perfectly well. It’s not that women are being illogical or are somehow letting “feels” interrupt their thinking. The researchers are saying women do all the thinking exactly like men, but are more likely to empathize with those harmed when making a moral judgement.

    Being that ethical reasoning is very heavily rooted in empathy, my big take away from this article that we should be socializing men more like we socialize women. If we want a more moral world, we need more compassionate people. Women are socialized to be more empathetic, and it’s apparently showing up in studies of moral reasoning.

    I totally agree that the artificiality of the trolley problems is a concern. Psychologists aren’t the only ones troubled by this. Philosophers are, too. Kwame Anthony Appiah talks about it a bit in his book Experiments in Ethics. Fascinating book by a very thoughtful person (I highly recommend his TED talk on religion.)

    But you can survey people to ask about their deontological vs. utilitarian tendencies. Practical questions like, “If two patients require a heart transplant, but only one donor is available, how should we decide which patient gets the heart?” get at the difference between these two ethical systems. If you ask enough of those questions, you can identify people’s tendencies (which is what the studies examined in this meta-analysis did.)

    Thank you for letting me know about this research, Rebecca!

  9. I tend to be utilitarian (as predicted by the study for old white male farts like me), but I would not murder mini-Hitler because I don’t believe that would prevent the holocaust. Even if I had some magical insight (even more magical than my time machine) that without Hitler there would be no holocaust, I wouldn’t kill a child because that would provide justification for the next nut who was just as sure he was doing the right thing to maybe kill a few dozen children who he was “sure” would grow up to commit atrocities.

  10. Even if we discard the ethical problems with altering the timeline as well as the potential of paradoxes, if you time it wrong, there’s a rather big risk of him being replaced by someone competent.
    (See Stephen Fry’s “Making History” or http://tvtropes.org/…/WebersGermanyTheVeterinarianTotal…)
    And if you really want to change the time line there are more elegant ways than killing him: Getting him into the art academy for example.


  11. Because the situations “trolly” and “time machine” scenarios are fanciful, you will get different results from reality if your only option is to take direct action by facing your target and killing them when you can see “The whites of his eye’s”!
    However if you change the scenario to “erasing Hitler from history with a push of a button, or remotely vaporising the guy on the train line with a push of a button, your more likely to get a response about what you would do. Its all very different IRL close up and personal.

  12. I remember a different excercise being thrown at me by my A-level Philosophy teacher.
    “You see two men drowning in a river, being swept towards a waterfall. You recognise these men, one is a world-famous scientist close to finding a cure for cancer, the other is your father. You can jump into the water and rescue one, but not both. Which one do you save?”
    I told that teacher that, purely intellectually, I would save the scientist. She argued that I was being silly, if it were real, of course I would save my father. My retort was something along the lines of – “No chance! My dad’s a champion offshore powerboat racer, and a much stronger swimmer than me. If he’s drowning in that current, I’m sure as hell not jumping in!”

  13. Of course not. I’d be pretty stupid to want to kill Hitler.

    Both my parents were children during the war. My father lived just outside London. My mother lived on a farm in Yorkshire which employed quite a few German and Italian prisoners of war.

    If the course of the war were altered then I would very likely not exist, because the influences on my parents childhoods would have been different. So, if I were to travel back in time and kill Hitler not only would I probably stop myself from existing, but I would probably stop many of those people that I love and those I consider to be friends from ever existing.

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