A team of academic researchers has conducted an experiment in which participants were asked to give increasingly strong electric shocks to an avatar (a virtual representation of a person). The experiment reprised Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiment from the 1960s in which people willingly administered shocks to strangers on the command of an authority figure. As the researchers explain:
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 responded with increasing discomfort and protests, eventually demanding termination of the experiment.
The researchers report that “in spite of the fact that all participants knew for sure that neither the stranger nor the shocks were real, the participants who saw and heard her tended to respond to the situation at the subjective, behavioural and physiological levels as if it were real.” A viewing of a decidedly creepy video clip from the experiment goes a long way toward explaining the participants’ reactions:
The researchers go into detail describing how people react to virtual human beings as though they were real:
The participants in the [experiment] often behaved in a way that only made sense if they were responding to the virtual character as if she were real. For example, when she asked participants to speak louder, they invariably did so. The voices of some participants showed increasing frustration at her wrong answers. At times when the [avatar] vigorously objected, many turned to the experimenter sitting nearby and asked what they should do. The experimenter would say: ‘Although you can stop whenever you want, it is best for the experiment that you continue, but you can stop whenever you want.’ As we have seen some did stop before the end. Some giggled at the [avatar’s] protests, as was observed by Milgram in the original experiments. When the [avatar] failed to answer at the 28th and 29th questions, one participant repeatedly called out to her ‘Hello? Hello? …’ in a concerned manner, then turned to the experimenter, and seemingly worried said: ‘She’s not answering …’
It would be interesting to compare the results of the new experiment with the results of Milgram’s to determine whether people actually exhibited more empathy for the avatars than for the humans. On second thought, maybe we’d be better off not knowing.
Experiments like Milgram’s have been banned as politically incorrect, but the researchers believe that their discovery “reopens the door to direct empirical studies of obedience and related extreme social situations, an area of research that is otherwise not open to experimental study for ethical reasons, through the employment of virtual environments.” One wonders, though, whether we’ll see an avatar-rights movement emerge in the near future. Is it ethical to torture a virtual human?
UPDATE: More video from the experiment.