When a person is facing a life-or-death decision, considering how certain aspects of the situation should affect their choice can make them more likely to save lives – according to new research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science by DMEP members Tom Gordon-Hecker and Tehila Kogut.
The researchers proposed to use a method they termed structured analysis of personal criteria as a tool to help people make decisions in such contexts. When using structured analysis of personal criteria, the decision-maker is asked to rate how different attributes of the situation should affect her decision. By doing so, she becomes more focused on the most important attributes of the situation, which – for most people – is human lives, and is better able to overcome different biases.
In the first experiment, the researchers examined preferences for policies aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, such as lockdowns with major economic consequences. In the first study,251 Israeli students were split into three groups and asked to consider the possibility of a strict lockdown that would save 5,000 lives while costing the nation’s economy $40 billion. One group was asked to decide immediately whether they would impose the lockdown, while a second was instructed to think carefully about the decision. The third were asked to rate how important factors like saving lives, preventing economic damage, and protecting the well-being of the greater population should influence their choice. Additionally, each participant across the three groups shared what they thought was the minimum number of lives that would have to be saved in order to justify a month-long lockdown. The results revealed that participants in the structured analysis of personal criteria group, who were asked specifically to consider these factors before
making their decision, gave more weight to saving human lives, and were willing to accept fewer deaths before agreeing to impose a lockdown.
The second study focused on damage related to Hurricane Dorian, which struck the Bahamas in 2019. Three-hundred fifty-seven Americans were asked to decide whether to donate money to support rescue attempts of three Americans or five Argentinians. As with the previous experiment, participants were divided into three groups – one was asked to make an immediate decision, another was told to think carefully first, while a third was asked to rate how important the number of lives saved and the nationality of the victims should be in their decisions. The results again revealed that the structured analysis of personal criteria group was more likely to report giving more weight to the number of lives saved in the decision, and accordingly, was more likely to prefer donating to the rescue attempts of the five Argentinians over the three Americans.
Together, the findings demonstrate that asking people to think about how different attributes of the situation should affect their decision highlights the importance of human lives, and leads their decisions to be life-maximizing, overcoming other considerations and biases.

Gordon-Hecker, T., & Kogut, T. (2022). Think of What Really Matters: Structured Analysis of Personal
Criteria can Save Lives. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 19485506221141987.‏​