The “Trolley Problem” in virtual 3-D

A psychologist has taken a classic experiment, the “Trolley Problem,” to the virtual realm:

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…

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.

Several thoughts:

1. The finding about emotional arousal reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s summarizing in Blink: humans make different decisions in emotionally charged situations.

2. The article is set up by suggesting that this kind of virtual research helps get around the issue facing the social sciences that people say one thing and then do another. While I don’t disagree that this is a problem, people’s stated beliefs and attitudes are still consequential. Take a story I blogged about a few days ago: people may be getting married at lower rates but majorities still aspire to get married, reinforcing a social norm. We need data on both actions and beliefs.

3. I’m tempted to ask whether people’s responses in this virtual world are different than if they were in the real situation. Is there a larger body of research that suggests these virtual experiments are truly better than typical research experiments?

4. Whenever I have presented this experiment to students, they tend to find to find it interesting. Also, since this one is fairly straightforward (one life for five), introducing variants to it such as having to push a large man onto the tracks to stop the train, thus giving the bystander more culpability, can change people’s responses.