Thinking Tech

Would you sacrifice a person's life to save five?

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Scientists use virtual reality to determine how people might respond when faced with an ethical conundrum.

You might be familiar with the old adage "What people say they will do and and what they actually do in any given situation are two completely different things."

It's also a common criticism leveled at those working in the behavioral sciences like sociology and psychology, which often draw findings based on surveys and other forms of self-reported data. Virtual reality, however, is emerging as intriguing new tool because it enables researchers, to some degree, test a subject's claim by simulating just about any given situation. Recently, Carlos David Navarrete, a evolutionary psychologist at Michigan State University, applied the technology to shed light on how people might respond when faced with an ethical conundrum.

The Catch-22 bind he chose to put his subjects in is a popular philosophical thought experiment known as the "Trolley Problem." The classical version of it goes a little something like this: You're a train worker who observes a runaway train moving down a track where five people are about to get run over. You can pull a switch that diverts the train onto another track but you would end up killing one person who happens to be walking on the alternative track unaware. What would you do? Think about the situation in a pragmatic sense (saving more lives) and pull the switch? Or do nothing, which can be viewed as a wash-your-hands-of-any-responsibility decision.

The virtual simulation version was devised by wiring up test subjects with eyewear that generated a 3-D re-enactment of such a scenario. Attached to their fingertips were electrodes that measured their heartbeat and other indicators of their emotional state as they were forced to make a difficult decision. Using a joystick, users can either re-route the runaway boxcar, killing a lone hiker, or do nothing and let the it kill the group of five hikers.

Of the 147 participants, 133 (or 90.5 percent) pulled the switch to divert the boxcar, resulting in the death of the one hiker. Fourteen participants allowed the boxcar to kill the five hikers (11 participants did not pull the switch, while three pulled the switch but then returned it to its original position).

While the findings corroborated with the results of a previous study that relied on self-reported methods, the experiment also showed that participants who did not pull the switch were more emotionally aroused. This means that their inaction might not be so much a conscious choice but a result of freezing up during highly anxious moments, which is akin to a solider failing to fire his weapon in battle, Navarrete said. Perhaps if they had remained calm enough to process what was happening, the percentage of people who would have pulled the switch to save five and let one die might have actually been greater.

“I think humans have an aversion to harming others that needs to be overridden by something,” Navarrete said. “By rational thinking we can sometimes override it – by thinking about the people we will save, for example. But for some people, that increase in anxiety may be so overpowering that they don’t make the utilitarian choice, the choice for the greater good."

Photo: MSU

(via Michigan State University)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure