Overcoming Ethical Constraints
Dec 24, 2006 - 8:00:14 AM
Psychological experiments that stopped 40 years ago because of ethical
concerns could instead be conducted in cyberspace in the future.
By repeating the Stanley Milgrams classic experiment from the 1960s on
obedience to authority that found people would administer apparently
lethal electrical shocks to a stranger at the behest of an authority figure
in a virtual environment, the UCL (University College London) led study
demonstrated for the first time that participants reacted as though the
situation was real.
The finding, which is 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
Professor Mel Slater, of the UCL Department of Computer Science, who led
the study, says:
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.
Stanley Milgram originally carried out the series of experiments in an
attempt to understand events in which people carry out horrific acts
against their fellows. He showed that in a social structure with recognised
lines of authority, ordinary people could be relatively easily persuaded to
give what seemed to be even lethal electric shocks to another randomly
chosen person. Today, his results are often quoted in helping to explain
how people become embroiled in organised acts of violence against others,
for example they have been recently cited to explain prisoner abuse and
even suicide bombings.
Following the style of the original experiments, 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. It delivers a
life-sized virtual reality within which a person can experience events and
interact with representations of objects and virtual humans.
The results show there was a clear behavioural difference between the two
groups depending on whether they could see the virtual human. All
participants in the Hidden Condition (HC) administered all 20 shocks.
However, in the Visible Condition (VC) 17 gave all 20 shocks, 3 gave 19
shocks, and 18, 16 and 9 shocks were given by one person each.
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 was 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, 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.
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