A study was done to better understand what causes post-traumatic stress disorder. It had been noted that some veterans had PTSD even though a last minute reprieve prevented them from having to carry through the awful choice they had made. So they put people in an MRI and asked them for a decision about the following scenario.
You and others are hiding in a concealed shelter while enemy soldiers are searching for you. If they find you, they will torture and kill you all. One of the women hiding with you has a baby and the baby starts to cry. If the soldiers hear the baby, they will find you. Nothing the woman does stops the baby from crying.
The question: Do you kill the baby to save yourself and the others?
Most people react with recoil and disgust. They won’t even consider the option. Never going to happen. The researchers then pressed the research group and forced them to enter a decision of yes or no. A control group was allowed to leave without entering the decision.
Interestingly, those who were forced to make a decision showed initial signs of PTSD regardless of whether the decision was yes or no. It was the act of having to make such a monstrous decision which caused the trauma (although I’m sure the necessary follow through would make it worse). Either you commit the monstrous act of killing a baby or you become potentially responsible for the pain and death of an entire group. There’s no good decision there.
It gives us a better understanding of how our brains and emotions work. Being forced into an impossible situation is traumatic, even if you make the “right” decision. So our emphasis on reassuring people they made the right choice isn’t helpful. Giving them a chance to release the stress without judgment and empathizing with the difficulty was more useful in helping the test group reach some peace of mind.
Granted, this was only a hypothetical situation and the people in question weren’t asked to carry through with their decision. But it still gives us insight. Actually, I wonder if the public nature of the decision also plays a factor. Presumably some of the control group had an idea of which choice they would make but weren’t forced to reveal it. I would be curious to see if there was a followup to see if their potential choice weighed on them later.
There could also be some interesting parallels with the Milgram experiments where people had to choose whether or not to give a fatal shock to a fellow experimentor (who was actually an actor). How many of those people ended up with traumatic issues from having to make that decision?