To torture or not to torture a mad bomber? How does the moral dilemma work in virtual reality

Experts from the MU Faculty of Informatics have tested a new form of the classic “Mad Bomber” moral dilemma.

Imagine a situation where you have to deal with an attacker who has planted explosives. The explosives are about to go off and it is assumed that hundreds of people will die or be wounded. The man refuses to tell where the bombs are. Time is running out and one of your supervisors suggests torturing the man. Would you do that? Would you also torture his innocent wife to make him give you the information you need?

Experts from the Masaryk University Faculty of Informatics have tested a new form of the classic “Mad Bomber” moral dilemma: would you torture a suspect to save hundreds of innocent lives? The researchers transformed the thought experiment into virtual reality to see if that has an impact on the moral judgements of participants in the experiment.

Developing and designing a game based on the well-known moral dilemma took about half a year. With a head-mounted display (Oculus Rift), the game takes you to an interrogation room where the suspect sits in a chair. You have several actions to choose from by using the keyboard and mouse: you can talk to the man, you can leave or you can start torturing him.

There are a number of objects on the table to help you do the last, such as a scalpel, pliers, and also a water bottle, as waterboarding is one of the options for torture. Each time you select an option, the program asks if you if you really want to do it.

Fotios Liarokapis, associate Professor at Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Laboratory at the Faculty of Informatics describes the simulation in the following way: “The room features the classic one-way mirror, so there are other people watching you. You can also hear a clock ticking on the wall, reminding you that time is running out until the explosion. There are nine different scenes in the game and two possible results.” He and his colleagues would like to conduct more experiments in the future.

Thirty volunteers had to make this decision. They were asked to resolve the situation “on paper” in a questionnaire and also in an immersive virtual reality environment. The experiment was conducted in the . The results show that the participants used more violence against the suspect in the virtual reality setting compared to the questionnaire.

One half of the participants received the questionnaire first and then faced the same situation in the virtual reality setting; the order was reversed for the other half. However, nobody behaved in the same way in both situations.

“There are a number of possible explanations and right now, we cannot draw any general conclusions due to the small sample size. However, the initial results show that in virtual reality environments, participants feel more immersed in the scenario and are more likely to resort to torture,” says Liarokapis. He adds that this result was expected, as virtual reality can be very successful in simulating scenarios that would be hard to enact in real life.