Virtual morality: emotion and action in a simulated three-dimensional "trolley problem"

Emotion. 2012 Apr;12(2):364-70. doi: 10.1037/a0025561. Epub 2011 Nov 21.


Experimentally investigating the relationship between moral judgment and action is difficult when the action of interest entails harming others. We adopt a new approach to this problem by placing subjects in an immersive, virtual reality environment that simulates the classic "trolley problem." In this moral dilemma, the majority of research participants behaved as "moral utilitarians," either (a) acting to cause the death of one individual in order to save the lives of five others, or (b) abstaining from action, when that action would have caused five deaths versus one. Confirming the emotional distinction between moral actions and omissions, autonomic arousal was greater when the utilitarian outcome required action, and increased arousal was associated with a decreased likelihood of utilitarian-biased behavior. This pattern of results held across individuals of different gender, age, and race.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Arousal
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Decision Making
  • Emotions*
  • Ethical Theory
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response
  • Humans
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional*
  • Judgment
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Problem Solving*
  • User-Computer Interface*
  • Young Adult