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Dr Kathryn B Francis
Raluca Briazu
Agi Haines
Simulating Moral Actions: An
Investigation of Personal Force in Virtual Moral Dilemmas

Posted on 22 October 2017, updated 27 October 2017

Kathryn, Raluca, and Agi publish in Scientific Reports

Kathryn B. Francis, Raluca Briazu, and Agi Haines published in the journal Scientific Reports. The article, titled "Simulating moral actions: An investigation of personal force in virtual moral dilemmas", discusses the inconsistency between moral judgments given on paper and simulated moral actions performed with haptic robotic devices and interactive sculpture in virtual moral dilemmas. Kathryn and her co-authors show that people are more likely to kill one person in order to save many, when moral actions feel up-close and personal. Further, high psychopathic traits predicted how powerfully people simulated utilitarian moral actions in moral dilemmas, providing insights into the roles of personality traits in moral decision-making. The study suggests that utilising these interdisciplinary approaches in investigations of moral actions (i.e., combining methods from psychology, robotics, and design) could offer unique and novel insights into the nature of simulated moral actions beyond that of moral judgments.

Kathryn completed her PhD in CogNovo working on project #19 "Moral cognition: An interdisciplinary investigation of judgment versus action" which investigated the relationship between moral action and judgment using state-of-the-art technologies. Kathryn is now working at the University of Reading as a postdoctoral fellow in an interdisciplinary project exploring the psychology of philosophical thought experiments.

Raluca is a CogNovo fellow working on project #18 "The role of counterfactual thinking in deception" where she is investigating the link between counterfactual thinking i.e. the imagination of alternatives to reality, and deception. Raluca is also examining the mechanisms that underlie this relationship, utilising experimental approaches and clinical investigations to determine how these processes might be associated.

Agi is a CogNovo fellow working on project #24 "Ideas exchange: Understanding the human object" in which she investigates ways to promote the exchange of ideas between scientists, artists, and stakeholders while maintaining the depth and nuances that facilitate the identification and prioritisation of new research topics. Agi examines how speculative design practice might be used as a platform to question the rhetoric of modelling within biomedical and healthcare sciences.

Dr. Sylvia Terbeck is a lecturer in social psychology in the School of Psychology. Her research has been published in several areas including social neuroscience, moral psychology, neuroethics, social psychology and intergroup relations, psychopharmacology, and virtual reality. Sylvia's virtual reality research lab at Plymouth University is involved in a number of projects, including the present research, investigating social and moral behaviours in immersive scenarios.

Dr. Ian Howard is an associate professor in computational neuroscience in the School of Computing and Mathematics. His research involves the study of the human motor system with a focus on arm and hand movements as well as the development of computational models of infant speech acquisition. Ian's development of robotic systems has led to the design of the vBOT system which features in this publication as a tool with which to generate haptic feedback and measure the power of moral actions.

Dr. Michaela Gummerum is an associate professor in psychology in the School of Psychology. Her research interests span social development, moral development, development of parent-child relationships through to economic game theory and ecological approaches to development.

Dr. Giorgio Ganis is an associate professor in cognitive neuroscience in the School of Psychology. He utilises behavioural and cognitive neuroscience methods to study a number of research areas including higher level vision and cognition, social cognition and relationship with spatial cognition, and deception, veracity assessment, and self-deception.


  • Francis, K. B., Terbeck, S., Briazu, R. A., Haines, A., Gummerum, M., Ganis, G., & Howard, I. S. (2017). Simulating Moral Actions: An Investigation of Personal Force in Virtual Moral Dilemmas. Scientific Reports, 7 (1). doi:10.1038/s41598-017-13909-9

Press coverage

This publication by Kathryn B. Francis, Sylvia Terbeck, Raluca Briazu, Agi Haines, Michaela Gummerum, Giorgio Ganis, and Ian Howard received some wider press coverage. Here you can find a selection of related news articles:


In addition interviews with one of the researchers were broadcasted in BBC Radio Wales, TALK radio.