People Are Horrified When They Have to Torture a Virtual Person

In a virtual recreation of the infamous Milgram Shock Experiment, participants were just as reluctant to continue, even though no one was hurt.

Digital Shock

Back in 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram shocked the world with controversial research in which everyday people followed a scientist’s instructions to electrocute someone who they thought was giving incorrect answers on a quiz — a damning indication that many people will acquiesce to brutal directives by an authority figure.

In December 2018, a team of London-based scientists repeated the experiment in a VR simulation in which they asked participants to zap a virtual avatar. Even though no one got hurt, participants were just as reluctant to pull the lever — even going so far as to try rigging the experiment so they didn’t have to, according to research published in the journal PLOSOne that breaks new ground in the psychology of how people relate to virtual characters.

Answer Key

During the experiment, participants quizzed a virtual character. A correct answer meant they could move on, while an incorrect answer meant the human participant had to administer a virtual electrical jolt. The scientists noticed that participants sometimes tried to feed the virtual avatar the correct answer by pronouncing it louder — in hopes that they wouldn’t be told to shock them.

And even though many participants continued to follow instructions, they were measurably stressed and anxious about doing so, the researchers write in a Scientific American blog post published Friday.

“At the end, even those who had cheated showed an increased stress level,” they wrote.

Big Picture

In their blog post, the scientists suggest that their research could be used to explain how people act under troubling leaders — just like how Milgram set out to explore the behavior of individual Nazis after World War II.

“If we look at our experiments as a proxy for resistance to authority, we can anticipate a psychological cost to the resisters. Even though their obedience isn’t genuine, those who persist endure additional stress compared to those who decide to quit,” they wrote. “In the long term they will also be facing the moral dilemma of engaged followership, wondering whether they engaged too much and in essence enabled a leader they did not want to obey.”

READ MORE: Would You Give a Virtual Electric Shock to an Avatar? [Scientific American]

More on Milgram: Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories – and How to Change Their Minds

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People Are Horrified When They Have to Torture a Virtual Person

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