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Does the Trolley Problem Reveal If You’re a Psychopath? The Irrational Twist, Explained

Behavorial scientist Alec Mercer uses a tool of the trade to try to defuse an explosive situation on The Irrational.

By Joe Dziemianowicz

Events get explosive in a recent episode of NBC's The Irrational.

How to Watch

Watch The Irrational Mondays at 10/9c on NBC and next day on Peacock

Behavioral scientist Alec Mercer (Jesse L. Martin) is confronted by prison escapee Wes Banning, who was incarcerated 20 years earlier for the deadly church bombing.

As Banning threatens to blow Mercer and his assistants, Phoebe and Rizwan, sky-high, the ace behaviorist uses a tool of the trade — the Trolley Problem — to see if he’s really dealing with a man without ethics or empathy.

Does the Trolley Problem reveal if you’re a psychopath?

Banning (Ben Cotton) previously said that he acted as a “lone wolf” in the blast that killed 13 people and left Mercer seriously scarred. But Banning has recently changed his tune: Turns out another person, Mathias, was the mastermind.

I only made that bomb. I didn’t set it off,” Banning told an inmate in a transfer van before managing to get free and flee. Alec's ex-wife, FBI Agent Marisa Clark (Maarha Hill), and her colleagues then rushed to form a manhunt.

RELATED: Everything We Know About The Irrational Season 2

Mercer and his assistants headed to the lab to determine Banning’s next move. But Banning was already there. He had planted “his toys” — aka explosives — in the building and was wearing a bomb vest.

Alec Mercer points in The Irrational Episode 110.

Banning claimed he wants justice, noting he doesn’t know Mathias’ identity, but he knows what he looks like. He demanded that Mercer get Marisa to come there. Mercer agreed, but only after the bomb-maker agreed to answer a few questions.

That’s when Mercer deployed the Trolley Problem, a tool to probe the inner workings of Banning’s mind.

“Imagine there’s a runaway freight train headed towards four children crossing the track,” Mercer said to Banning. “But you have a switch you can flip to derail the train, saving the children by killing the engineer. What do you do?”

Listening in from another room, Phoebe (Molly Kunz) and Rizwan (Arash DeMaxi) recognized Mercer was using a version of the Trolley Problem. “He’s trying to see if Banning’s a psychopath,” Rizwan observes.

Mercer presents an alternative scenario in which pushing an overweight man into the path of the vehicle could save the children. Would he do it?

The Trolley Problem, also known as the Trolley Dilemma, presents hypothetical ethical situations in which a subject must decide if they’d sacrifice one person to save many. How subjects say they’d respond to the kill one, save several scenarios may indicate measures of psychopathy, according to an often-cited study, the independent.co.uk reported.

Rizwan and Phoebe appear concerned in The Irrational Episode 110.

Those who answered that they would push a man to kill him in order to save others tended to score higher on psychopathy tests, that study showed. However, it's hardly a foolproof method for divining who's a psychopath.

“Although the study does not resolve the ethical debate, it points to a flaw in the widely-adopted use of sacrificial dilemmas to identify optimal moral judgement,” study co-author and Columbia University professor Professor Daniel Bartels said. "These methods fail to distinguish between people who endorse utilitarian moral choices because of underlying emotional deficits (like those captured by our measures of psychopathy and Machiavellianism) and those who endorse them out of genuine concern for the welfare of others.”

Banning did seem to answer the wrong way when he claimed he’d do whatever and kill whoever he had to for one particular reason: “I have to save the children,” he said.

It turns out his daughter was his current motivating factor. 

“Throw a switch, save a child,” he said,

But what happens next? Find out and watch The Irrational when it airs Monday at 10/9c on NBC and the next day on Peacock.