Classic 1960's obediency experiment reproduced in virtual reality

Scientists have recreated Milgram’s classic obediency psychology experiment using virtual reality. Back in the 1960s Stanley Milgram appeared to show that student participants would obey a researcher and administer lethal electric shocks to a stranger, but the studies have not been replicated because of ethical concerns. Now Mel Slater at UCL and colleagues have tested participants’ willingness to administer electric shocks to a computer animated woman in a virtual reality environment.

Twenty-three participants donned a virtual reality headset and tested the computerised woman on a word memory task. Each time she responded incorrectly they were instructed to administer an increasingly large shock to her. The woman was clearly unreal, but she responded to the pain of the shocks, for example at one point she said she had never agreed to this and didn’t want to continue.

Although the participants knew the woman was unreal, six of them chose to stop the experiment before it was due to end on the woman’s 20th incorrect response. A further 6 said it had occurred to them to stop early because they had negative feelings about what was happening. By contrast, of eleven participants who completed a control experiment in which they only interacted with the (unseen) woman by text, just one chose to stop the experiment early, and no others said it had occurred to them to stop.

There was further evidence that the participants who could see and hear the computerised woman were affected by the experiment as if it were real. Their stress responses were raised (as judged by sweating and heart rate) compared with the 11 control participants. And on those trials in which the woman protested, the participants tended to give her longer to answer before administering the shock. Some participants emphasised the correct answer among the available choices, as if trying to help the woman avoid a shock.

“Humans tend to respond realistically at subjective, physiological, and behavioural levels in interaction with virtual characters notwithstanding their cognitive certainty that they are not real”, the researchers said. The findings suggest immersive virtual reality environments could be a vital tool for social psychologists, especially for pursuing research of extreme social situations.

Slater, M., Antley, M., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Guger, C., Barker, C., Pistrang, N. & Sanchez-Vives, M.V. (2006). A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. PLOS ONE, 1, e39 (open access).

Editor's note - published just a few days ago, this study is from the very first issue of open access publisher PLOS' brand new general science journal PLOS ONE.
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