New research has found that while some humans are capable of sacrificing one life to save many, their decision has roots found in the minds of psychopaths.
The study, carried out by the University of Plymouth, wanted to compare what people ‘said’ they would do to whether or not they would then actually do it.
The team devised a complex moral questionnaire that was compared to a virtual-haptic technology which would simulate a human actually being hurt.
In several of the dilemmas the participants were asked to sacrifice one individual by harming them in order to save a larger group from also being hurt.
The image above for example is taken from the viewpoint of the participant at the end of a scenario in which the trolley car is about to collide with the virtual avatars standing on the tracks ahead. Participants are able to rotate in the virtual environment and voice commands are included to ensure full understanding of the events playing out.
Now while they found that almost everyone was more happy to sacrifice the individual in the immersive simulation than in the questionnaire, they did notice that those with psychopathic traits were more likely to administer these harmful actions with greater force.
Now commonly, psychopathy is generally characterised by antisocial behaviour and an almost complete lack of empathy. Yet it is these traits that allow them to perform utilitarian actions without any of the emotional repercussions that come with it.
As demonstrated in the University’s findings, it appears as though this resilience to performing harmful acts actually allows an individual to act for the ‘greater good’ far more effectively than someone who would find the decision emotionally challenging.
Dr Kathryn Francis, now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Reading, said: “This research highlights our proneness to moral inconsistency; what we say and what we do can be very different.”
The innovative study combined a range of new technologies including virtual reality, advanced robotics and interactive sculpture in order to make the test as realistic as possible.
Dr Sylvia Terbeck, Lecturer in Social Psychology and study co-author, added: “This study opens up the possibility to assess psychopathy using novel virtual reality technology - which is vital to better understand how and why people with these behavioural traits act in certain ways.”