Can virtual reality technology show how a person would really behave in a morally difficult situation – despite what he or she might claim on paper?
In our Plos One paper, we show that people are more likely to sacrifice others for what they imagine to be the greater good when immersed in virtual reality.
In the dilemma, people had to decide whether to push a person off a bridge to block a train to save five people on the railway line below. We found that people were more likely to make a sacrificial response – push the person off the bridge – in a virtual reality environment than they would in the traditional text-based equivalent of the experiment. We also found that antisocial traits predicted sacrificial moral actions in virtual reality, but that they did not predict moral judgments given in the text-based dilemma.
This study was the result of collaboration between myself, Dr Sylvia Terbeck, Dr Michaela Gummerum, Dr Giorgio Ganis and Grace Anderson in the Plymouth University’s School of Psychology, and Dr Ian Howard and Charles Howard of the Centre for Robotics and Neural Systems.
Our research suggests that Oculus Rift technology – the virtual reality headset more commonly associated with home entertainment – could be a valuable tool for studying moral actions.
Our results offer new insights into the nature of moral action beyond that of moral judgment. The disparity demonstrated here between moral judgments on paper and moral actions in virtual reality suggests that they may be driven by different processes. It supports the age-old saying of ‘do as I say, not as I do’, highlighting the real disparity between moral action and moral judgment. With the emergence of these virtual technologies, we can gain an insight into how we make difficult decisions when faced with an emotionally aversive dilemma.