Make a Choice

Thought experiments come to life with VR.

Go into an intro to philosophy class and you’re likely to find a thought experiment that goes like this: A runaway trolley is headed for a group of five people stuck on a train track. Next to you is a lever that, if pulled, can divert the trolley to a different track. The dilemma: There’s one person caught on that other track, too. What do you do? Kill one person or five?

Erick Ramirez, associate professor of philosophy, finds thought experiments like this really weird. “People stink at correctly simulating environments in our heads,” Ramirez says. “What we’re actually doing is, we’re trying to predict our behavior.”

Rather than just imagine, Ramirez and fellow associate professor Scott LaBarge have worked with student Miles Elliott ’19 to recreate thought experiments like the “Trolley Problem” in virtual reality simulations. In VR, a person has to look at the people and make the choice.

“In an actual time pressure judgment, do they tend to switch or not?” Ramirez asks.

And VR lets you track more than just the outcome. Ramirez will be able to track head movements to analyze what people are looking at when they make decisions. In addition to the Trolley Problem, the team developed six other simulations that tackle ethical dilemmas. All are free to download.

post-image Illustration by Sam Chivers
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