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Moral Decision-Making and Haptic Feedback in Virtual Environments: An Exploration of the Trolley Problem

Ivan Wang, Andrew R. McHugh, Madeline Duque, & Swetha Kannan


Hypothetical moral dilemmas posed in writing can be enlightening, but difficult to extend to reality. We investigated the authenticity of moral decisions made in a virtual reality both with and without haptic feedback. We placed subjects in a variation of the “trolley problem,” a classic thought experiment in philosophy, devised by Philippa Foot, that gave the choice of killing one person to save five or letting five die from inaction. In the “fat man” variation by Judith Jarvis Thomson, we gave participants the choice to push a person to his death or let four others on an elevator fall to their death. Our findings suggest that moral actors, at least in virtual environments, are less likely to push a person to his or her death when they have the tactile feedback of that person.

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