Here's a question; if you could go back in time and kill Hitler - likely saving millions of lives - would you do it? Your answer, researchers were surprised to find, might depend on your gender.

New research published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology suggests that, given such a question, men seem more willing to accept the need for harmful actions for the sake of the greater good than do women.

The Hitler question was among a range of moral questions asked of 6,100 people in a study conducted by U.S., Canadian and German researchers.

Although both men and women carefully considered the consequences of their potential decision, women said they found it harder to commit murder and were more likely to let Hitler survive, the study found.

"Women seem to be more likely to have this negative, emotional, gut-level reaction to causing harm to people in the dilemmas to the one person, whereas men were less likely to express this strong emotional reaction to harm," says lead research author Rebecca Friesdorf. A master's degree student in social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Friesdorf analyzed 40 data sets from previous studies. 

In the study participants were asked 20 questions, all of them involving a moral dilemma centering on such things as murder, torture, abortion, lying or the morality of animal research.

An example was asking them to imagine being a member of a group of people hiding from soldiers and being handed a crying baby. Would they smother the child to save the group or let it live at the risk of the group being caught and likely killed?

The study considered two contrasting philosophical/ethical principles; utilitarianism, which says committing a harmful action is acceptable if it is for the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and deontology, which holds that breaking moral conventions as held by most people, even to secure a favorable future result, is wrong.

Women were more likely to fall into the deontology camp and agonize for a long time over a decision, while men were somewhat more likely to lean toward utilitarianism and make a quick decision, the researchers found.

That leads to a gender difference in making a moral decision, they say, with a stronger emotional aversion to harmful action being seen among women.

However, the study findings contradicted a common stereotype of women being less rational because they tend to be more emotional, Friesdorf says.

The study yielded no evidence of gender differences when it came to the rational evaluation of the outcomes of harmful actions.

The study findings lend support to previous research that found that while women tend to be more empathetic to feelings of other people than do men, gender differences in cognitive abilities tend to be small or even nonexistent, Friesdorf says.

The study was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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