Giulia Benvegnù

Neuroscience, Technology, and Society, XXXIV series
Grant sponsor

Luciano Gamberini
GianAntonio Susto


Project: Moral dilemmas in vr driving simulations: effects on behavior and emotional experience
Full text of the dissertation book can be downloaded from:

Abstract: Moral dilemmas, such as the trolley problem and its variants, have long been used as a paradigm for studying moral decision-making. In recent times, two factors have shaken up this field: on the one hand, the diffusion of Virtual Reality (VR), a technology that has proven to be the ideal tool to study dangerous situations that cannot be safely reproduced in the real world (such as moral dilemmas) in a more realistic way. On the other hand, the introduction of the first autonomous vehicles (AVs), which has made moral dilemmas a tool to investigate user preferences in unavoidable collision situations. This Ph.D. thesis combines these lines of research, exploring behavior and emotional reactions in VR versions of moral dilemmas applied in the driving context through three studies. Study 1 investigated the eventual presence of emotional differences between a human and an autonomous driving modality. Results showed that being the one who decides in life-death situations or experiencing the same decision made by an AV elicited a very different pattern of arousal and valence. Study 2 explores the effect of different legal frameworks in crashes involving semi-autonomous cars. Main findings revealed that being informed that the legal liability lies with the manufacturing company when the driver has no control of the vehicle did not affect participants’ behavior but made them feel less morally responsible for accidents made by semi-autonomous cars. Study 3 analyzes the effect of the presentation method, text or VR, on decision and emotional reactions during unavoidable accident situations, showing that people are inclined to sacrifice their lives to save pedestrians in textual moral dilemmas, but not in the realistic VR version of the same dilemmas. The thesis begins with a presentation of the main theories of moral decision-making (chapter 1), followed by a brief description of VR technologies and work that has applied them to the study of moral dilemmas (chapter 2). Relevant literature on moral dilemmas in the driving context is then presented (chapter 3). Finally, the three studies of this thesis are described and discussed