Executive PhD students test the effects of virtual reality on moral reasoning

Daniels students using virtual reality headsetsCan immersing yourself in another person’s reality make you more empathetic to their struggles? That’s the question a trio of students in the Executive PhD program at the Daniels College of Business set out to answer in January. Using virtual-reality headsets that put participants into one of three all-encompassing worlds, the PhD students conducted a study that measured participants’ levels of moral reasoning before and after the VR experience.

“Moral reasoning is the concept that humans go through a developmental process of increasing their ability to reason,” said Dennis Dunivan, the Executive PhD student who conceived of the study. “In the early stages, when you’re young, it’s all about you. Then you start to care about your family, which is a higher stage. Caring about your community is an even higher stage. The highest stage is universal morality, where you care about everyone on the planet and think about how we need to work collectively to solve global warming and issues like that.”

With the help of their academic advisor Dennis Wittmer, professor in the Daniels Department of Management, Dunivan and fellow Executive PhD students Dale Collins and Paula Mann used a survey to establish a baseline assessment of moral reasoning for a group of 66 Daniels undergrads. Utilizing the digital experience lab at the Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center at Daniels, they then put the participants through one of three virtual reality experiences, each chosen to represent a different level of moral dilemma.

“The baseline, neutral experience was a history of film, nothing too emotionally gripping, but still a fun experience,” said Jacob Kranitz, a Daniels MBA student who served as a research assistant on the project. “The next experience was the ecosphere, following around some sea turtles and a guide through reefs and hearing about the impacts of climate change. The third experience, the most intense one, followed three different refugee children on their journey as they are displaced from their homes in Ukraine, South Sudan and Syria. That one definitely pulled on the heartstrings a little bit more and elicited a more intense emotional response.”

After the participants completed their experiences, they filled out the moral reasoning survey a second time. The researchers are now looking to see how much their scores changed after the participants went through the VR experience. They are still analyzing the data, but preliminary results show that the VR experience centered around refugees resulted in the biggest change in moral reasoning scores. It provides support for the effectiveness of using the technology for everything from education to training, Mann said.

“You could use this to improve ethics training, both in school and in a corporate environment as well,” she said. “A company could put their employees through this experience [for] diversity, equity, and inclusion [training], leadership—all these things could be done in a virtual environment. And hopefully they’d be more impactful than just sitting at your computer and doing your yearly ethics training.”

For Dunivan, who is interested in experiential learning for leadership development, the idea for the experiment came from watching his teenage children play video games online with people from around the world and share the same experience.

“The challenge with experiential learning is that everyone’s experience is different. If you take people out to a ropes course, it’s hard to prove that it’s effective in a research setting in a study, because every experience is different,” he said. “With virtual reality, the experience is always exactly the same.”

Kranitz, who works with VR as part of his job at Maxar, a Colorado-based space technology and intelligence firm, says the experiment is just the beginning when it comes to the power of the technology to change people’s ways of thinking.

“It’s very powerful, and it has a lot of real potential,” Kranitz said of VR. “When people talk about the metaverse and all these future technologies, it can get very dystopic, but I think there’s a lot of potential for these shared experiences to actually generate a lot of empathy and to help get a true understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes.”