In moral behavior, (virtual) reality is something else altogether

Easier said than done
This is a burning car. Credit: SISSA
"Moral" psychology has traditionally been studied by subjecting individuals to moral dilemmas, that is, hypothetical choices regarding typically dangerous scenarios, but it has rarely been validated "in the field". This limitation may have led to systematic bias in hypotheses regarding the cognitive bases of moral judgements. A study relying on virtual reality has demonstrated that, in real situations, we might be far more "utilitarian" than believed so far.

The brakes of your car fail suddenly and on your path are five people who will certainly be hit and killed. You can steer, but if you do another pedestrian will find himself on your course. Just one. What do you do: do you take action and kill one person or do you do nothing and cause five people to die? This is an example of a "", the type of problem use for studying the cerebral foundations of moral behaviour. Obviously, such experiments can only be conducted in a hypothetical manner, and not "in the field", but could this limitation have led cognitive psychologists to incorrect theoretical interpretations? An alternative to "real" reality is virtual reality: a group of researchers, including Indrajeet Patil, Carlotta Cogoni and Giorgia Silani of SISSA (the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste), in collaboration with the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory of the University of Udine, has carried out experiments involving virtual reality and found that human behaviour might be very different from what is seen in conventional tests relying on moral dilemmas.

In fact, with virtual reality the subjects' behaviour appears to be far more utilitarian than expressed in hypothetical judgements: "in tests with virtual reality people are far more likely to choose to steer and kill only one person", explains Patil, the first author of the paper. "In classic moral dilemmas, that is, when the subjects are only required to express a judgement on what they would do, they are more likely to state that they would not take any voluntary action that would result in a person being killed".

"Our results suggest that caution is needed when using data from a single type of experiment. Clearly, in most cases it isn't possible to test the scenarios envisaged in the moral dilemmas in the real world, but virtual reality, although not completely replacing "real" reality, can in any case provide a valuable method to support research."

More in detail …

Easier said than done
This is a lifting magnet. Credit: SISSA

In the experiments carried out by Patil and co-workers the same subjects took part in two experimental sessions. In one they responded to hypothetical moral dilemmas presented to them in text format. In another they had to make immediate decisions (press a button to steer the car or do nothing) in the same situations as represented in virtual reality.

Data were also collected on the subjects' level of by recording electrodermal activity, the electrical activity of the skin.

Easier said than done
This is a train. Credit: SISSA
"The measurements of the subjects' emotional arousal during the experiments suggest that when arousal is greater – in a setting, which is closer to a real-life situation – the subjects respond in a utilitarian manner, that is, they choose to take action to save the greatest number of people. In a hypothetical and therefore less emotionally charged setting, the type of response was 'deontological': the moral aspect of the action was assessed independently from the practical consequences of that action. Voluntarily killing a person was considered unacceptable". As a result, when faced with moral situations in real life we may take decisions that are morally at variance from our ethical convictions.

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Provided by International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA)
Citation: In moral behavior, (virtual) reality is something else altogether (2014, January 15) retrieved 19 January 2019 from
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Jan 16, 2014
The scenarios mentioned are impossible in real life. Just why anybody thinks otherwise shows the severe limitation of human's grip on reality.

Here is the elephant in the room: if, for instance, you are driving a car and the brakes fail and there are five people ahead it is IMPOSSIBLE for you to know in advance that they will all be killed. Indeed, miraculous escapes from death often appear on the nightly news.

If a person steered the car in such a way that one person is killed then they will be charged with murder and their only defence is insanity. A defence claiming to be able to see the future with 100% accuracy will not be taken seriously in any court anywhen in the world. The person involved rightfully should be condemned as a murderer.

If it wasn't for the obvious depth of researcher's ignorance of reality and people's actual response to real conditions then we'd have to consider this and other such studies like it as wilfully fraudulent.

Jan 16, 2014
Note that none of the moral dilemmas described can exist in reality even in principle ie there are no conditions in which a person has a 100% insight into the outcome of future events. By changing switches on railways or driving into pedestrians we are changing a situation in which the outcome is accidental into one in which we are personally responsible and further, that we have complete faith in our ability to predict the future. This kind of confidence is only seen in comic superheroes and that kind of precognition is only described in religious doctrine regarding spiritual masters, sages and prophets of God.

But, for some reason, these researchers seem to think this is our usual experience? These scenarios are impossible even in principle and therefore should be dismissed without further discussion. Psychology is a science. The above study describes what in physics used to be called alchemy or metaphysics. It is about time we drove this ignorance out of psychology and repla

Jan 16, 2014
It is about time we drove this ignorance out of psychology and replaced it with proper empirical science.

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