In a new study, participants were presented with a moral dilemma: Would you be willing to harm one person if it saved a larger group of people? The researchers found that essentially all of the participants were somewhat willing to sacrifice one person in order to save several people; however, participants with psychopathic traits were able to carry out these actions with greater intensity.
Psychopathy is generally characterized by antisocial behavior and impaired empathy. As such, it makes sense that people with strong psychopathic traits would find it less emotionally challenging to sanction utilitarian actions.
“This work shows how techniques developed to study human movement can play a value role in psychological assessment and thereby lead to new insights into human social behaviour,” said Dr. Ian Howard, associate professor in the Centre for Robotics and Neural Systems at the University of Plymouth.
For the study, the participants were first given a questionnaire asking how they would respond to a variety of difficult moral dilemmas. In several dilemmas, participants had to decide whether to sacrifice a person by performing a harmful action against them, in order to save a larger group of people.
Then the participants were tested in a virtual scenario to see if they actually would carry out what they said they would do in the questionnaire. The study used virtual-haptic technologies (i.e. using a robotic device which measures force, resistance, and speed, whilst simulating the action of harming a human).
The study found that all of the participants were more likely to sacrifice others in these immersive environments than they were in the questionnaire-based assessments. “This research highlights our proneness to moral inconsistency; what we say and what we do can be very different,” said Dr. Kathryn Francis, now a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy and psychology at the University of Reading.
The researchers also found that people with strong psychopathic traits were more likely to carry out these harmful actions with greater physical power.
“For the first time, we demonstrate how personality traits can influence the physical power of our moral actions. Importantly, the multidisciplinary approaches that we have used here, combining virtual reality, robotics, and interactive sculpture, places further emphasis on the need to unite the sciences and the arts when investigating complex phenomena such as morality,” said Francis.
This resilience to performing actively harmful acts appears to enable these individuals to act for the ‘greater good’ (i.e. to save the many). This result therefore indicates that, in certain situations, psychopathic traits could be considered beneficial, since they can lead to a more vigorous response.
“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,” said Dr. Sylvia Terbeck, lecturer in social psychology and study co-author.
Source: University of Plymouth