Pretend you are a railway operator. You see an out-of-control railcar barreling down a track where five of your co-workers are working. You can save them my flipping a switch to redirect the train to another track. But on the other attract another co-worker is doing repairs.
You have five seconds to make a decision: Who do you save? Five people or one?
Researchers at Michigan State University are using virtual-reality to gauge how people respond to that question.
The dilemma, long known as the “trolley problem” has been a staple in psychological testing. Over the years, about 90 percent of people surveyed said they would kill the one to save the five.
For the first time, MSU researchers are able to study how people would react to the situation in a lifelike setting with real-looking victims.
The study included 147 participants who made their decision while wearing a head mounted virtual-reality device that projected images of those who could die. The simulation not only included video but audio of the potential victims screaming as the boxcar approached.
Participants also had electrodes attached to their skin to measure autonomic response – an involuntary nervous system response that rises when a person is stressed.
Though the study had a new twist, participants responded the same way previous study participants did without the visual aides. Of the 147 participants in the MSU study, 133 pulled the switch.
In the reverse situation, where the train car on speeding down the track where one person was working, again 90 percent opted to save the five by not switching the rail line.