Picking up ethical challenges within the humdrum of professional practice: can 3D avatars help?

Principal Investigator: Dr Sylvie Delacroix

“Virtual Reality technology can help shed new light on key aspects of professional judgment and expertise. We are just beginning to explore the possibilities.”

Experts’ reliance on intuitive schemas and selective information allows for quick and efficient performance, yet the latter comes at a cost, for it can cause tunnel vision and restrict flexibility. Immersive virtual reality technology is used to gain a better understanding of both the cognitive and intuitive processes underlying professional judgment and expertise across a variety of fields (medical, legal, forensic, management etc.)

Thanks to generous research funding from the Leverhulme Trust, HENCEL (Health Education North and Central London), and the Welcome Trust, we have successfully developed a “proof of concept” antibiotic prescription GP scenario exploring the factors that contribute to a decision to prescribe antibiotics in a situation of conflict with the patient.

We are now working on a qualitative analysis of the this (improved) GP scenario, as well as considering applications to end of life care discussions.

In the long term one of our key objectives is to draw upon the resources of Virtual Reality technology to gain a better understanding of the impact of professional habituation on moral judgment (which is seldom studied empirically).

While phenomenological studies suggest that high degrees of expertise can enable some professionals to bypass cognitive processes altogether and intuitively see the solution to a problem, repeated exposure to the same scenario is conversely suspected to numb ones emotional sensitivity:

[T]he horrible thing about all […] officials, even the best […] is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent). It is simply that they have got used to it.
G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles

Is it the case that scenarios that would otherwise arouse powerful emotions (and hence alert our ethical sensitivity) can be sunk into the humdrum by the combined weight of professional identity and the habits entailed by it?

Our previous work on using virtual reality in moral judgement appeared on BBC Horizon “Are You Good or Evil?”.

The technology

An Oculus Rift II (DK@) headset

An Oculus Rift II (DK2) headset

In order to bring the virtual reality environment to professionals (GPs, lawyers etc), the project will make use of portable, head-mounted virtual reality systems called Oculus Rifts II (DK2), which enable the participant to experience a strong illusion of ‘being’ and acting in a virtual space.

These systems provide a qualitatively different experience from CAVE (a room where high-resolution images are projected on screens that make up three walls and the floor). For example, they do not allow participants to see their (real) body, but instead can present them with a virtual representation of their body, which can allow for a more seamless interaction with the virtual world.

To further add to the power of the experiment, researchers can monitor how participants respond physiologically (heart rate, sweating, for example) to events and situations within the virtual environment.


The team

Dr Sylvie Delacroix, Reader in Legal Theory and Ethics at UCL Laws, started investigating ways in which one may incorporate recent findings from moral psychology into novel teaching methods in ethics with the help of virtual reality technology in a workshop she organised in March 2013.

she is currently working on a monograph analysing the impact of habit and habituation on moral judgment and civic responsibility.

Mel Slater is Research Professor with ICREA-University of Barcelona and Professor of Virtual Environments at UCL Computer Science, and studies how realistic responses can be triggered by virtual environments and virtual social scenarios.

Visit Mel’s website to find out more about Virtual Reality research at UCL

Dr Sylvia Xueni Pan, Lecturer in Computing at Goldsmiths College and Honorary Research Fellow at UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, is a previous postdoctoral Research Fellow in computer science, and brings experience in the research area of human-avatar interactions related to social anxiety, moral dilemmas, and studies in social neuroscience. See Sylvia’s website for more information.

Caroline Fertleman, Consultant Paediatrician at the Whittington Hospital, Honorary Senior Lecturer, Institute of Child Health, UCL


Dr David Swapp is a Research Fellow at UCL Computer Science, and manager of UCL’s Immersive Virtual Reality Lab facilities.

He has extensive experience of VR hardware (display, interaction and tracking systems) and of support and research in wide-ranging collaborative research projects, including numerous studies on social interactions in immersive VR.

Dr Antonia Hamilton, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, studies the brain and cognitive basis of human social interaction, using virtual reality and brain imaging methods. See Antonia’s website for more information.

Dr Jayne Kavanagh, Principal clinical teaching fellow, UCL Medical School is the lead of the Medical Ethics and Law Unit and is responsible for the MBBS Ethics and Law programme. She is particularly interested in developing novel ways of training medical students and doctors to deal with the ethically challenging situations they face in day-to-day practice.

Prof. Pascoe Pleasence is Professor of Empirical Legal Studies and co-director of the Centre for Empirical Legal Studies in the UCL Faculty of Laws. Until recently he was Academic and Scientific Advisor at the Legal Services Commission, and continues to advise a range of governmental bodies in the United Kingdom and overseas.


The Responses of Medical General Practitioners to Unreasonable Patient Demand for Antibiotics – A Study of Medical Ethics Using Immersive Virtual Reality. Pan, X., M. Slater, A. Beacco, X. Navarro, D. Swapp, J. Hale, P.A.G. Forbes, C. Denvir, A.F.d.C. Hamilton, and S. Delacroix. 2016

Related publications

‘Picking up ethical challenges in professional practice: can 3D avatars help?’, UCL Laws News, 14 November 2014

‘From presence to consciousness through virtual reality’Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6, 332-339, April 2005, (doi:10.1038/nrn1651)