A new study indicates that people become more utilitarian (save more lives) when viewing a moral dilemma in a virtual reality situation, as compared to reading the same situation in text.
Although research in moral psychology in the last decade has relied heavily on hypothetical moral dilemmas and has been effective in understanding moral judgment, how these judgments translate into behaviors remains a largely unexplored issue due to the harmful nature of the acts involved. To study this link, we follow a new approach based on a desktop virtual reality environment. In our within-subjects experiment, participants exhibited an order-dependent judgment-behavior discrepancy across temporally-separated sessions, with many of them behaving in utilitarian manner in virtual reality dilemmas despite their non-utilitarian judgments for the same dilemmas in textual descriptions. This change in decisions reflected in the autonomic arousal of participants, with dilemmas in virtual reality being perceived more emotionally arousing than the ones in text, after controlling for general differences between the two presentation modalities (virtual reality vs. text). This suggests that moral decision-making in hypothetical moral dilemmas is susceptible to contextual saliency of the presentation of these dilemmas.