EAST LANSING, Mich. Imagine a runaway boxcar heading toward five people who can't escape its path. Now imagine you had the power to reroute the boxcar onto different tracks with only one person along that route.
Would you do it?
That's the moral dilemma posed by a team of Michigan State University researchers in a first-of-its-kind study published in the research journal Emotion. Research participants were put in a three dimensional setting and given the power to kill one person (in this case, a realistic digital character) to save five.
The results? About 90 percent of the participants pulled a switch to reroute the boxcar, suggesting people are willing to violate a moral rule if it means minimizing harm.
"What we found is that the rule of 'Thou shalt not kill' can be overcome by considerations of the greater good," said Carlos David Navarrete, lead researcher on the project.
As an evolutionary psychologist, Navarrete explores big-picture topics such as morality in other words, how do we come to our moral judgments and does our behavior follow suit?
His latest experiment offers a new twist on the "trolley problem," a moral dilemma that philosophers have contemplated for decades. But this is the first time the dilemma has been posed as a behavioral experiment in a virtual environment, "with the sights, sounds and consequences of our actions thrown into stark relief," the study says.
The research participants were presented with a 3-D simulated version of the classic dilemma though a head-mounted device. Sensors were attached to their fingertips to monitor emotional arousal.
In the virtual world, each participant was stationed at a railroad switch where two sets of tracks veered off. Up ahead and to their right, five people hiked along the tracks in a steep ravine that prevented escape. On the opposite side, a single person hiked along in the same setting.
As the boxcar ap
|Contact: Carlos David Navarrete|
Michigan State University