On the first day of my morals and ethics class, I was asked to imagine the following scenario: You’re walking home from work when you notice a runaway trolley flying down the train tracks. Just ahead of this railway car are five people tied up, incapable of moving. You then notice a lever nearby; pulling this lever would shift the tracks and direct the trolley away from the five people. But not so fast—there’s another person tied up on the other side of the tracks. So, what do you do? Do you refrain from pulling the lever and, in turn, kill the five people on the main track? Or do you pull the lever, changing the trolley’s route and, in turn, kill one person?

This famous hypothetical scenario is known as the trolley dilemma, which is designed to question our ethical intuition. I found myself unable to decide who got to live and die—but the majority of the class quickly concluded that they would pull the lever; they chose to save five people over one. This consensus is consistent with recent research findings—however, there is an added twist. A new study “Simulating Moral Actions: An Investigation of Personal Force in Virtual Moral Dilemmas” shows that people would sacrifice one life to save others, but those with psychopathic traits would do so with greater force.

To reach these findings, researchers analyzed both what participants said they would do in a given moral dilemma and what they actually did in immersive environments created by virtual-haptic technologies (which measure elements like force and speed, while simulating the act of harming a human). In a few of these dilemmas, the subjects were faced with a predicament similar to the aforementioned trolley dilemma: do you hurt another person in order to save more people? The team found that participants were more likely to do so in the virtual environments than in their questionnaires—and people with strong psychopathic traits were more likely to so with a higher degree of physical power.

Psychopaths are known to lack empathy; therefore, it is generally believed that individuals who show psychopathic traits find it less emotionally challenging to act pragmatically. This research suggests that the ease these individuals have in performing harmful acts may also allow them to act for the ‘greater good,’ or, in this case, have no problem choosing to save the many. In other words, psychopathic traits may be beneficial at times such as these.

In addition to this revelation about psychopaths, this study also sheds some light on our ethical inconsistencies: “This research highlights our proneness to moral inconsistency; what we say and what we do can be very different,” explains Dr. Kathryn Francis from University of Plymouth’s School of Psychology. “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.”

Just about everybody in my class said they would pull the lever to save the five people over the one. But who’s to say that’s really what they would do if they found themselves standing next to a lever that decided the fate of six real people? We can’t be too sure—but this experiment, which utilized virtual reality simulations, gives us the most accurate guess yet. Now there’s just one more question…what would you do?

Sources: “Simulating Moral Actions: An Investigation of Personal Force in Virtual Moral Dilemmas” by K. B. Francis, S. Terbeck, R. A. Briazu, A. Haines, M. Gummerum, G. Ganis & I. S. Howard. Scientific Reports, published online Oct. 24 2017

University of Plymouth “Sacrificing One Life to Save Others: Psychopaths’ Force for ‘Greater Good’.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 25 October 2017.