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The Virtual Milgram Obedience Experiment
image Back in the early 1960s Stanley Milgram conducted a famous experiment at Yale University. Volunteers were told that it was designed to test the effect of punishment on learning. Would a person learn a list of word pairs better if they were punished every time they got an answer wrong? The volunteer was instructed to deliver an electric shock to the learner every time one of his answers was wrong. The shocks increased in intensity for every wrong answer. Of course, the experiment wasn't actually about the effect of punishment on learning at all. It was really designed to see how long the volunteers would obey the authority of the researcher. Would they continue to give electric shocks to the learner even when it appeared that doing so would kill the learner? Over sixty percent of them went ahead and gave the shock. They were led to believe that they had killed or seriously injured the learner (who was actually just an actor).

Milgram's experiment is one of the most famous experiments of all time. But it provoked a lot of controversy about whether it was ethical. Often the volunteers were reduced to nervous wrecks as they struggled over whether to continue obeying the researcher, or to refuse to do so. No review board would ever approve such an experiment today.

Mel Slater, a Computer Science researcher at University College London, has announced a possible way around these ethical concerns. He replicated Milgram's experiment using a virtual learner. LiveScience reports:
When the virtual woman gave an incorrect answer, the participants were told to give a virtual 'electric shock' that buzzed to her, increasing the voltage each time she gave an incorrect answer... Over time, she responded with increasing discomfort and protests, eventually demanding the experiment stop. Near the end, her head would slump forward and she became unresponsive... 17 gave all 20 shocks and three gave 19 shocks, 18, 16 and 9 shocks were given by one person each. When volunteers were asked whether they had considered aborting the experiment, nearly half of those who could see and hear the virtual woman indicated they had because of their troubled feelings about what was happening. In addition, their heart rates indicated that participants reacted as though the situation was real.
I don't know. I'm having a hard time buying that a virtual learner could ever substitute for a real, living, breathing learner. However you parse it, thinking you've killed a virtual character is not the same as thinking you've killed a real person. It's like saying Milgram could have used mannequins instead of real people. It just wouldn't have been the same.
Categories: PsychologyScience
Posted by The Curator on Thu Dec 21, 2006
I used to have a computer program called a "video game". In this so-called "game" you went around killing virtual people.

I had to give it up! I began to wake late at night sobbing. I still cannot help but think of the virtual families that I destroyed playing this "game". The virtual faces of the virtual children waiting for a virtual parent who will never come virtually home...
Posted by Stephen K  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  01:06 PM
Slater's method might work if the volunteers are not aware that the "subjects" are virtual. They could make up some excuse to conduct the experiments, via the internet, on people who are at another location. Then the volunteers would think they were real.
Posted by Captain Al  in  Vancouver Island, Canada  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  02:26 PM
I can's even kill Sims!
Posted by eovti  in  Sandefjord, Norway  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  03:13 PM
*can't
Posted by eovti  in  Sandefjord, Norway  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  03:13 PM
But if Slater's volunteers didn't know the subjects were virtual, then it would be no different than Milgram's original experiment.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  03:14 PM
"But if Slater's volunteers didn't know the subjects were virtual, then it would be no different than Milgram's original experiment."

True. But if someone wished to repeat the experiment it would satisfy the ethical concerns (no one would get hurt) and make the experiment valid, assuming knowing the subjects are virtual affects the actions of the volunteers.
Posted by Captain Al  in  Vancouver Island, Canada  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  07:15 PM
You're right Alex, it wouldn't be the same. But I'd say Milgram's experiment is being replicated in real life all around the world, every day. Nearly all soldiers will keep obeying authority in any circumstances, even when they know they are bombing and burning civilians, including children, people just like their family and friends back home. It's even relatively rare for devout Christians to be conscientious objectors, though the Christian god commands unconditionally "you shall not kill". So long as someone else takes moral responsibility (with army chaplains giving military authority an extra boost), most soldiers will kill anyone. Even when it turns them, like Milgram's volunteers, into nervous wrecks.
Posted by Wendy Collings  in  Wellington, NZ  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  07:18 PM
Hmmmm. . .if the test was to see if they'd keep going even if they thought that they might harm the person who they were shocking, then I think that using a virtual "person" would pretty much spoil the whole thing as far as testing for that was concerned. It's like comparing one of those flight simulator video games to actually flying an airplane: a person who in real life would never even dare to set foot on an airplane might happily get on a computer and "fly" an F-16 through downtown New York City.

However, performing the test that way did give some interesting data on people being upset over "harming" something that they knew they weren't really hurting.

"So long as someone else takes moral responsibility (with army chaplains giving military authority an extra boost), most soldiers will kill anyone."
-- Posted by Wendy Collings in Wellington, NZ


No, actually they won't. In fact, most soldiers won't even shoot at enemy soldiers who are actively doing their best to kill them.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  08:39 PM
"most soldiers won't even shoot at enemy soldiers who are actively doing their best to kill them"

Ummm, you mean "enemy" soldiers will kill, but the other side won't???

So in every war, only one side is doing the active killing, because only one side is the enemy. Right?
Posted by Wendy Collings  in  Wellington, NZ  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  09:28 PM
It doesn't work, not even remotely. There is a massive difference between watching a virtual person suffer and watching/listening to a real person "suffer." People know the difference between a "real" event and a "virtual" event. Only other humans can convincingly fool other humans, especially if they're confronted face-to-face with the event in progress.

"No, actually they won't. In fact, most soldiers won't even shoot at enemy soldiers who are actively doing their best to kill them."

People will do things for different reasons. Some might delight in killing, some might just do it because they know that they'll get killed unless they kill first, or maybe they just do it out of fear of retribution for failing to execute their orders. Soldiers will fight because they are told to. And they will kill the enemy, if that is what is required.
Posted by Soldant  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  10:30 PM
Alex: "But if Slater's volunteers didn't know the subjects were virtual, then it would be no different than Milgram's original experiment."

Captain Al: "True. But if someone wished to repeat the experiment it would satisfy the ethical concerns (no one would get hurt) and make the experiment valid, assuming knowing the subjects are virtual affects the actions of the volunteers."

Not so--in the original Milgram's experiment the "victims" were actors not really receiving shocks. The ethical concern is over the emotional torment (guilt etc.) foisted on the subjects who thought they were causing suffering. (The big shock [pun intended] is how many of them continued under the "just following orders" rationale.)

So if the subjects think the virtual people are real, then Alex is right, there is really no difference at all ethically.

Oh yeah--the other ethical concern is over the subterfuge. It's considered wrong nowadays to lie to your subjects like this. Even in placebo controlled tests, you have to tell the subjects that they might get real treatment or a placebo. Gone are the days of human guinea pigs.
Posted by JoeDaJuggler  in  St. Louis, MO  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  10:57 PM
"Ummm, you mean "enemy" soldiers will kill, but the other side won't???

So in every war, only one side is doing the active killing, because only one side is the enemy. Right?"
Posted by Wendy Collings


No, that's not what I said or meant. I said "most", not "all".

There will always be people who will take delight in the idea of shooting at other people, because they consider it a game or enjoy the power. But most of those people would be the same if nobody was ordering them to do so. There are plenty of non-military people who are the same way.

A large number of soldiers (exactly what percentage depends on training and suchlike) when ordered to open fire will either just sit there or hide, and even if they do open fire will blindly shoot the landscape without actually intentionally taking aim at anybody. Even if they themselves are taking enemy fire. And in that sort of situation, the people who do fire back aren't doing so simply because they're ordered to do it, but rather as a matter of survival.

In more professional or organised militaries people not firing is less of (but still) a problem, but in those the soldiers are usually expected to exercise their discretion and only obey legal orders. The moral responsibility rests as much with them as it does with their superiors. That's why people like the Nazis who insisted they were "only following orders" were still held responsible for what they did. So most soldiers will not "keep obeying authority in any circumstances" and "kill anyone", especially if the orders are too nonsensical or too far against their own ethics. When noncombatants are killed in battle, it's very rare that they were specifically targeted. Usually whoever was shooting didn't know that they were there, or else were doing their best to avoid hitting them but were unable to. If actually ordered to drop bombs on a bunch of children, they would refuse. The few times when there really are massacres, the soldiers usually weren't ordered to do it. So the notion that they were blindly obeying authority then isn't true.

There's a personal limit to how far people will follow orders. In the article, 26% stopped and refused orders to shock someone who they knew wasn't real. And earlier when a real person was used, 40% stopped. How many do you think would have gone ahead if told to deliberately shock the subject to death? Militaries are made up of a cross-section of the country's population, mainly just ordinary everyday people. So the soldiers aren't going to be any different from the people in these tests. They'll follow instructions up to a point that's determined by their own minds, but beyond that they won't. So your sweeping statements that "nearly all soldiers will keep obeying authority in any circumstances" and "so long as someone else takes moral responsibility. . .most soldiers will kill anyone" just don't hold true.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Fri Dec 22, 2006  at  07:14 AM
Guess I misinterpreted the ethics violation that was taking place. I thought the subjects were actually getting shocked in both cases and the actors were playing it up even more. Now that I've reconsidered, I suppose it would be unfair to subject the volunteers to that kind of mental anguish.

Still, I would rather be one of them as opposed to the soldiers who were forced to stand close to a nuclear blast so the military could see what affect it had on troops. I think that was done in the early '50s.
Posted by Captain Al  in  Vancouver Island, Canada  on  Fri Dec 22, 2006  at  04:33 PM
"If actually ordered to drop bombs on a bunch of children, they would refuse." (Accipiter)

So how do you explain the bombing of cities such as (to stick to a few obvious examples) Dresden, London, Nagasaki, Hiroshima?

Ordinary soldiers did that (and still do it). They didn't "delight in killing". They had no illusions about who or what they were bombing; knew that these were cities with families, children, not soldiers. They would never have done it of their own accord, but did it when they were ordered to. And that's just what Milgram proved: it's hard to take a moral stand all by yourself; easier to obey authority and let them take the moral responsibility.
Posted by Wendy Collings  in  Wellington, NZ  on  Fri Dec 22, 2006  at  05:32 PM
I agree with Wendy here. It was shown clearly in Milgram's experiment that people will do horrible things under orders that they would never have considered on their own.
Posted by Razela  in  Chicago, IL  on  Fri Dec 22, 2006  at  09:17 PM
Wendy, you are using a common misconception of the commandment. It does not say "You will not kill" it says "You will commit no murder" and just a bit later murder is clearly defined.

As far as the percentage of soldiers who actually fire their weapons in combat, the only study I know of (done during WW II) gave 10% of all soldiers, even in known life-or-death situations, was the best tht could be expected.

Milgram's experiment could be considered a more formal version of "peer-presure" or "mob mentality" Only a minute percentage of the human population seems able to resist going along with the crowd, even if the crowd is one person with presumed authority, and even if the crowd's actions violates the individual's ethics. Most lynch mobs were probably ordinary people caught up in the actions of the crowd. The crowd being started by a small portion of the whole.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Fri Dec 22, 2006  at  10:28 PM
I'd find that very hard to believe. I can understand soldiers shooting at TERRAIN or TOWARDS a location because that's the idea behind suppressing fire - pin them down and break their morale. However past that it IS survival. I don't see how you can say that a human will shoot another for survival, but then say that soldiers will not shoot enemy soldiers while under threat of fire. That is fighting for survival.

Not every soldier will fire their weapon in action because not every situation requires the firing of their weapon. For example, a raid may require that only one soldier fire his weapon for covering fire, causing the enemy to surrender. One soldier fired his weapon; the others did not. Others won't shoot until they can actually see something, or don't carry weapons which are designed for suppressive fire.

Equating that to a person's unwillingness to kill because they are ordered/otherwise compelled to do so is silly.

The experiment is not "mob mentality" or "peer pressure", it is doing something because an authority told you to do so. The person is not a peer, and they are not conforming due to a trend set in society, and there is no mob: they are ORDERED to shock the subject, not pressured into doing so because everybody else is.
Posted by Soldant  on  Sat Dec 23, 2006  at  03:31 AM
Soldant, they are aspects of the same thing. In all of these cases you are giving up the decision-making process to another either willingly or otherwise. Another aspect of the same phenomenom is the willingness of people to believe what someone else says merely because that other person's political party/special-interest group/celebrety status/etc. Poul Anderson wrote a nice story on this many years ago, his character Nicholas van Rijn compares the human race to wolves and sheep. Most of the humans, he believes, are sheep who follow blindly and only a very few are wolves who don't follow blindly. While in general I think his point is valid, I would also add that most people can become wolves but rarely for any length of time. Most people, if there is any validity in this, are only too willing to let someone else do their thinking/decision making for them.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Sat Dec 23, 2006  at  11:55 AM
"So how do you explain the bombing of cities such as (to stick to a few obvious examples) Dresden, London, Nagasaki, Hiroshima?

Ordinary soldiers did that (and still do it)."
-- posted by Wendy Collings in Wellington, NZ


So, you think that a very, very small percentage of soldiers following a few specific orders proves that "nearly all soldiers will keep obeying authority in any circumstances" and "will kill anyone" if told to do so? That nearly any order will be followed by nearly any soldier?

"I don't see how you can say that a human will shoot another for survival, but then say that soldiers will not shoot enemy soldiers while under threat of fire. That is fighting for survival."

-- posted by Soldant


It's what happens, though. No, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but since when have people always made sense?
Posted by Accipiter  on  Sat Dec 23, 2006  at  01:25 PM
"It's what happens, though. No, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but since when have people always made sense?"
Actually I was pointing out a logic error in the post, not making a comment about human behaviour.

"Soldant, they are aspects of the same thing. In all of these cases you are giving up the decision-making process to another either willingly or otherwise."
The dynamics of peer pressure, mob mentality and authority are totally different. They do not happen the same way. Yes, you can say that that all of them end up having somebody making up somebody else's mind for them, but that's like saying three glasses of water are all full of water. How the decision is made and why they follow it is what is more important than the fact that one was made and that they followed it.

This is about doing something by somebody of implied or actual higher authority, not mob mentality or peer pressure. The dynamics are different. Peer pressure is about people who are of similar social standing or are friendly to you who are compelling you to do something to fit in with them. Mob mentality is the sweeping urge to do something because everybody else is doing it. This is not those things. This is somebody who has implied authority to order you to do something that you might find questionable, and to see if you'll actually do it.

I could do a different experiment by putting two of you in a room, facing each other, and having two people put a gun up against both of your heads with a clock between you. I would instruct you that to survive, you must kill the other person. This would test not peer pressure, not mob mentality and not the willingness to follow orders by an authority, but the will to survive. I am giving you an order but it is your job to follow it under threat.

Or is that somehow exactly the same as 3 friends telling you to stop messing around and grab that bong?
Posted by Soldant  on  Sun Dec 24, 2006  at  02:48 AM
Soldant, go one step back. The details of the method are different, but the fundamental aspect of all of these is that the individual has, for whatever reason, given someone else the decision-making rights to someone else. To use an analogy, suicide is suicide regardless of how it is acomplished. If you concentrate on the details of how the suicide was done you can miss the fundamental fact that they are all suicide. In all of these situations the individual has given away the authority to decide in this specific case. Regardless of if the individual gave that authority to a mob, peers, someone in charge, a celebrety, a political party, the flip of a coin, etc. the fundamental point is that the indivdual has given that authority away to someone else. The specific details about why do not change that fact.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Sun Dec 24, 2006  at  04:00 PM
If I concentrate on how the suicide occurred, I can miss the fact that suicide occurred? Do you realise how little sense that makes? We are not trying to establish the point that a person is giving power to somebody/thing to make their decisions for them, we are asking WHY and HOW that occurs in a specific situation. It is not the same thing. It's foolish to assume that they are all the exact same thing. The specific details of the event can answer those questions.

Or to talk about suicide, by assuming that something is suicide because other, similar things are classified as suicide could miss the point that it is actually murder, or perhaps the reasons behind why the suicide even occurred in the first place need to be examined. The old saying "Can't see the forest for the trees" doesn't apply when you already know what the forest is. Which we do. The question is how does it all fit together to end up with this?

And believe me, it differs greatly.
Posted by Soldant  on  Mon Dec 25, 2006  at  02:21 AM
Amazing. The new expirement is even more worthless than the first one...
Posted by Corvus  on  Mon Dec 25, 2006  at  12:18 PM
Derren Brown di something similar to this only making them shoplift and then later rob a bank, you should watch this, its very interesting: http://www.ryoni.com/videos/derren_brown_the_heist.html
Posted by samemo  on  Wed Dec 27, 2006  at  12:16 AM
and just out of interest is their anywhere i could download the program? to try on friends and family?
Posted by samemo  on  Wed Dec 27, 2006  at  12:19 AM
Soldant, I am not saying that these are all the same in every detail, not perhaps in many details. What I am saying is that each of these starts from a fundamental point of one human giving control of his/her decisions to another person/mob. And by examining that aspect, perhaps a light can shine into the human mind and we can learn how to combat this.

Granted that some surrender of control over our decision-making is required for society to work, but we should not do it wihtout some forethought.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Wed Dec 27, 2006  at  08:58 PM
This modern version of the experiment would work fine as long as the subject was not told that the person they were shocking was virtual. The problem is, once they know, it is just like killing off a Sim or a Warcraft person - it can't be considered scientific unless your hypothesis involves the effects of video games on the violence in our culture or something similar. They need to think it is a real person for it to be like Milgram's experiment. Otherwise it is just not replicating the same test at all.
Posted by Anne  in  Reno, NV  on  Sat Dec 30, 2006  at  12:23 AM
That can't work.Killing a virtual character has no effect.It needs to be real people.Even with the ethical corners it has to be real for it to be replicating at all.
Posted by J  on  Mon Jan 08, 2007  at  02:42 AM
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