Why you should care

Tiffany Sun’s fresh spin on a nearly half-century-old philosophical conundrum could help us confront our hidden biases. 

Quick, think: A trolley is careening past you toward five people tied to the track, hopelessly unable to budge. Your eyes dart to a lever, but you discover there’s a fork in the track and a pedestrian is about to step onto the other track. A sense of dread floods down your back: Flip the switch and the five will survive, but the one will not. Is there a right choice here?

Philosophy nerds probably recognize the scenario as the trolley problem, a moral dilemma that has baffled some of the world’s greater thinkers since it was invented more than four decades ago. After all, what if that one person is Bill Gates and the other five are homeless drug addicts? But that’s where a 17-year-old from Long Island has managed to turn the whole experiment on its head — and show that the decisions we make in such situations can shed light on human prejudice, not just morality. Meet Tiffany Sun, who has been dissecting this issue for three years while most kids her age are Snapchatting the night away, and who was a recent surprise finalist at the Intel Science Talent Search in Washington, D.C.

This profile is the second in an OZY series on geniuses. Think you have what it takes? Apply for an OZY Genius Award here.

“Surprise” in part because most typical child prodigies are bent over lab benches, focusing on the “hard” sciences. Indeed, Sun was the only behavioral-science finalist among 40 young stars. “Social science is really overlooked,” she says, but it “affected me more than biology and chemistry did.” Her work found that people will save the lone pedestrian if he or she is attractive, wealthy or able-bodied, leaving the ugly, poor and disabled to die — a discovery that academics say puts us one step closer to understanding our unfortunate biases.

Tiffany Sun's research shows us our society does not value all lives equally.

Tiffany Sun poses for a portrait in her home.

We catch up with Sun moments after her interview with the judge, and find a chic young lady exuding a boardroom-ready confidence. She sits across from me at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C., a hot-pink blouse peeking from beneath her all-black pantsuit, bronze-highlighted hair pulled into a high ponytail. Every now and then, she plays with the chunky gold rings on her fingers, her long nails painted an iridescent red. Equally entranced by economics, she wants to study business psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

With a self-assurance that occasionally burbles into bubbliness, Sun, now 17, traces her foray into the social sciences to a summer philosophy class at Johns Hopkins University. One day, her teacher presented the students with the trolley problem, splitting them into two groups and instructing them to argue for or against flipping the switch. Sun was assigned to the latter.

She displayed a penchant for psychology as early as 5 years old, when she set up an advice booth in her bedroom.

“Over the course of that debate, I really just fell in love with that problem,” says Sun, who had initially counted biology, physics and math as her favorite classes. “With those kinds of subjects, there’s a correct answer. Whether or not you get it, there is one that exists.” Not so with the trolley problem. The night she returned from Hopkins, she asked her family over dinner how they would respond.

Sun’s obsession doesn’t surprise her parents, who both work in real estate. She displayed a penchant for psychology as early as 5 years old, when she set up an advice booth in her bedroom, even dishing out dating tips to her 30-year-old aunt. “I told her to stop looking so hard, and the man would come to her,” Sun says, laughing. “Go to public places more, so she’d have more opportunities to meet people.”

The biases can make a difference between life or death.

—Fiery Cushman, assistant professor, Harvard University

When it was time to come up with a sophomore research project, Sun glommed onto her beloved trolley problem. Over the next month, she’d stand outside the local Department of Motor Vehicles office for a few hours, a few times a week, asking people to fill out her survey. They responded whether or not they’d flip the switch if the lone pedestrian was an attractive woman, a plain woman, a woman in a wheelchair, a woman standing, a woman in a business suit or a woman in a waitress uniform. She collected responses from about 300 people.

What she found was disturbing. Only 44 percent of respondents would kill the woman if she were attractive — versus 68 percent if she were plain. Fifty-four percent would sacrifice the woman if she were standing; 74 percent if she were in a wheelchair. Twenty-four percent would sacrifice a woman in a business suit, a figure that shot up to 59 percent if she were wearing a waitress uniform.

Experts say the study is impressive, especially given Sun’s age. “It’s an amazing project for a high school student,” says Alan Fiske, a professor of anthropology at UCLA. “It’s extremely creative and innovative, and it’s an enormous sample.”

But Fiery Cushman, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University, notes the “inherent limitations” of a study that asks people how they’d act in a hypothetical situation, which might differ from how they’d actually behave. And although novel, Sun’s study needs to be repeated. Should it hold up, her experiment would bolster the disturbing notion that our biases indicate a tendency to value some lives over others. “Biases are not just about who you smile at, at a party,” Cushman says. “The biases can make a difference between life or death.” He cited one study showing that the more stereotypically black an individual convicted of murder appeared, the more likely participants were to “sentence” him to death, for example.

After spending the past three years probing the trolley problem, what would Sun do? She sticks to her summer philosophy class argument. “I would do nothing,” she says without hesitation. “I don’t think I would have the right to choose who survives and who doesn’t.”

Photography by Jordan Hollender for OZY.

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