Virtual morality in the helping professions: Simulated action and resilience

Br J Psychol. 2018 Aug;109(3):442-465. doi: 10.1111/bjop.12276. Epub 2017 Nov 22.


Recent advances in virtual technologies have allowed the investigation of simulated moral actions in aversive moral dilemmas. Previous studies have employed diverse populations to explore these actions, with little research considering the significance of occupation on moral decision-making. For the first time, in this study we have investigated simulated moral actions in virtual reality made by professionally trained paramedics and fire service incident commanders who are frequently faced with and must respond to moral dilemmas. We found that specially trained individuals showed distinct empathic and related personality trait scores and that these declined with years of experience working in the profession. Supporting the theory that these professionals develop resilience in moral conflict, reduced emotional arousal was observed during virtual simulations of a distressing dilemma. Furthermore, trained professionals demonstrated less regret following the execution of a moral action in virtual reality when compared to untrained control populations. We showed that, contrary to previous research, trained individuals made the same moral judgements and moral actions as untrained individuals, though showing less arousal and regret. In the face of increasing concerns regarding empathy decline in health care professionals, we suggest that the nature of this decline is complex and likely reflects the development of a necessary emotional resilience to distressing events.

Keywords: emergency professionals; empathy; moral action; moral judgment; regret; virtual reality.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Affect
  • Allied Health Personnel / psychology
  • Arousal
  • Decision Making
  • Emotions
  • Empathy
  • Female
  • Firefighters / psychology
  • Humans
  • Judgment
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Morals*
  • Virtual Reality*
  • Young Adult