VR Lets Researchers Study Altruism in Life-or-Death Situations


Virtual reality has become an exciting therapeutic tool, but that’s far from the only good its doing in the world of psychology and neurology. A new study published in Neuropsychologia shows that it’s also allowing researchers to create scenarios that would normally being impossible to study ethically.

A research group from Italy’s Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (SISSA) and University of Udine used virtual reality to trap participants in a burning building in order to test their altruistic behavior — a scenario that wouldn’t be ethical under any real life circumstances.

“Our prosocial and altruistic impulses play a very important role in sustaining complex societal structure,” explained lead researcher Giorgia Silani in a press release. “However, studying altruism and its neural basis in lab-based environment poses unique ethical challenges. Indeed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce harmful situations realistically and then studying participant’s helping behavior, especially if such situations pose physical threat to the life of the participant.”

The VR environment they created allowed them to put participants through a gauntlet — a building from which they had to escape when a sudden fire began. During the escape, their health bar would tick downward.

Just before escaping, they were faced with a difficult choice: rescue an injured person trapped beneath debris, or ignore their cries for help while racing for the exit. To make the choice more costly, the participant would be nearly out of health by that point — virtually coughing and gasping for breath while their health bar flashed red.

Participants called the simulation “very realistic.” You can see a demo below, though the video lacks the immersive impact of VR.

Sixty-five percent of participants stopped to rescue the injured individual despite the virtual danger. Whether or not that would correlate to real world results is hard to say thanks to the aforementioned ethical issues of testing this in reality, but researchers found a couple other promising indicators. First, they had participants fill out a questionnaire. Those who made the altruistic choice also scored higher on empathetic concern.

“An individual’s willingness to help others in need at a cost to the self seems to be driven by other-oriented caring motivation,” said researcher Indrajeet Patil.

During the VR experience, they also had participants undergo an MRI, and found those who made the altruistic choice had a larger anterior insula. The anterior insula is involved in processing social emotions and social decision making.

Without VR, researchers wouldn’t have been able to put participants into a life-or-death situation, and they definitely wouldn’t have been able to complete a brain scan at the same time. With results this interesting, game developers who work in VR may soon be finding more work in the sciences than ever before.

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