by CIO Staff

Cyberspace May Overcome Ethical Constraints in Experiments

Dec 22, 20063 mins
IT Leadership

You probably remember, from your college Psych 101 class, Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment from the 1960s on obedience to authority. It found that people would administer apparently lethal electrical shocks to a stranger at the behest of an authority figure. Now, in a study that repeated the experiment in a virtual environment, says the University College London (UCL), it has been demonstrated that participants reacted as though the situation were real.

According to researchers, the finding, reported in the inaugural edition of the journal PLoS ONE, demonstrates that virtual environments can provide an alternative way of pursuing laboratory-based experimental research that examines extreme social situations. Professor Mel Slater, of the UCL department of computer science, who led the study, said in a statement, “The line of research opened up by Milgram was of tremendous importance in the understanding of human behaviour. It has been argued before that immersive virtual environment can provide a useful tool for social psychological studies in general and our results show that this applies even in the extreme social situation investigated by Stanley Milgram.”

Following the style of the original experiments, say university spokespeople, the participants were invited to administer a series of word association memory tests to the (female) virtual human representing the stranger. When she gave an incorrect answer, the participants were instructed to administer an “electric shock” to her, increasing the voltage each time she gave an incorrect answer. She responded with increasing discomfort and protests, eventually demanding termination of the experiment.

Of the 34 participants, 23 saw and heard the virtual human and 11 communicated with her only through a text interface. The experiments were conducted in an immersive virtual environment, formed by a computer-generated surrounding real-time display, which, says the UCL, delivers a life-sized virtual reality within which a person can experience events and interact with representations of objects and virtual humans.

Participants were asked whether they had considered aborting the experiment. Almost half of those who could see the virtual human indicated they had because of their negative feelings about what was happening. Measurements of physiological indicators including heart rate and heart rate variability also indicated that participants reacted as though the situation were real.

“The results demonstrate that even though all experimental participants knew that the situation was unreal, they nevertheless tended to respond as if it were,” said Professor Slater. “This opens the door to the systematic use of virtual environments for laboratory style study of situations that are otherwise impossible whether for practical or ethical reasons—for example, violence associated with football, racial attacks, gang attacks on individuals, and so on. Why do some people participate in such activities even though it is against their nature? The original Milgram experiment helps to explain this, and the exploitation of virtual environments may help to further research into these difficult and pressing questions.”

—Esther Schindler

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