2017 Summer Scholars: Megan Miller

by Marcus Stewart on September 29, 2017

Megan Miller, a senior majoring in Psychology, was one of the thirteen students selected into the 2017 Summer Scholars program. Over the summer, she was able to work with her faculty advisor, Dr. Chris Buchholz, to complete her research project titled: “Self-driving cars as a test of the potentially harmful effects of empathy on moral decision making”.

“My research project is attempting to understand what individual differences impact the decisions made during a moral dilemma. We hypothesized that empathy levels, your ability to understand the feelings of others, would have a large impact of what types of decisions people would make. Specifically those with higher levels of empathy would lead to consequentialist decisions, such as thinking about the greater good. We used self-driving cars as the moral dilemma in our study, asking participants who they think a self-driving car should save (examples include save your mom vs. three people, save yourself vs. a scientist on the verge of curing diabetes). From completing the project, I hope to learn what factors actually influence the types of decisions people make when faced with a moral dilemma”.

Megan started to think about her project while working with her advisor, Dr. Buchholz, in a research lab during her sophomore year.

“I helped with the other projects in the lab and then Dr. Buchholz and I started doing a literature review of empathy, focusing on the negative effects empathy can have. From there, we came up with the idea to see how empathy impacts moral decision making and decided on self-driving cars, since they are still an extremely new technology. We thought they would provide an interesting moral dilemma, and would potentially provide information for companies that make self-driving cars to help them determine how to program the cars”.

Megan enjoyed working with Dr. Buchholz over the summer.

“The Summer Scholars program has allowed me to work on my project throughout the summer, giving me more time to explore the results and hypothesize the reasons for the unexpected results. Summer Scholars also gave me funding that I was able to use to pay participants for the study”.

Megan is still working on her final research paper, but hopes to complete her project soon.

“I’ve completed most of the data analyses, but I’m still working on completing my final research paper. We did determine that males are more likely to make choices that benefit the greater good (such as saving Nobel Prize winning physicist over a stranger) than females, but overall both males and females tend to save themselves and their mom. We just ran a follow up study looking more into the gender differences, but haven’t analyzed that data yet”.

To anyone considering doing a research project, Megan recommends getting involved.

“If you’re interested, but don’t have a project in mind, talk to a professor in the department you’re interested in doing research in. They might already have a project in mind they need help with that you can take in your own direction, or they can help you brainstorm ideas for your own project”.

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