Stanley Milgram reloaded

16. January 2007

He fascinated generations of students: With his electro-shock-experiments in the Sixties, Stanley Milgram opened out the chasm of human mind. Now he attains honors anew. Scientists from London have transformed him into the virtual reality.

The lady does not look that friendly any more. She feels the power surges – that's for sure. Only a few levels further and the dark haired woman is squirming with pain with every push of the button. But the proband has no mercy. Higher and higher he turns the controller, up to regions that could be deadly – which is clearly indicated on the control panel as such.

The experiment to the 68' revolution

The power surges were not real, but the test persons did not know that. At least some of them did as the head of studies had told them, and this despite the fact, that they knew they are risking a life. Generations of pupils and students have studied and discussed the details of this breadboard construction known as the Milgram-Experiment.

It came not really as a surprise, that especially in Germany the fascination was huge facing the demonstrated chasm of the human mind confronted with a mighty powerful authority. Forty years after Milgram, a team around Professor Mel Slater of University College London has repeated the Milgram-Experiment. The scientist report about it in the remastered Open Access-Magazine PLoS ONE . But there was an essential difference to the original experiment: This time, not a human sat on the electric chair, but an Avatar, a virtual woman. 23 out of 34 probands made the Avatar squirm with pain making her uttering sounds etc. in accordance with the power surges and visible on a monitor. She was able to talk with her tormentors, protest or beg for mercy. The other eleven probrands did not see or hear anything, but were able to communicate with the lady via instant test messages. The order was to punish her with a power surge, whenever one of the answers to the quiz questions asked by the proband was wrong.

For parts of the brain virtual equals to real

Since it was clear to the probands, that they did not torment a real person, but a fictive computer animation, Milgram II was a different issue from Milgram I. Forty years ago Stanley Milgram Senior was out to find out, how far a person would go, when getting the order. Today his followers are more interested in the difference the brain makes between virtual reality and actual reality. The results speak a clear language: “Of course everyone knew, what nothing would happen”, says Slater, “but parts of the perception system took the events as real. There seem to be parts of the brain, that do not want to know about virtual reality.”
Especially those probands, who could hear and see the virtual lady, developed qualms, getting stronger as the experiment progressed. Those eleven probands just receiving text message without seeing or hearing the lady, administered all twenty required shocks of the breadboard panel – no exceptions. On the contrary, 6 of the 23 seeing the virtual lady, bailed out not going to the full dose, but stopping before. Six additional probands were at least taking into consideration to step off the experiment. In all cases, the reason was the same: The probands developed qualms, which showed in their hesitation. The higher the voltage, the longer got the time before the pushed the button again.

Sweat attacks, increasing heart rate , muscle tremor: The body takes it serious.

Theoretically all this could just simply happen on an abstract level of consciousness, but a whole battery of psychological parameter tested in the pobrands showed, that deeply into the subconscious, the virtual reality was perceived as “real” by the brain. Because, despite all virtuality, the measurements taking from the probands unveiled the stress reactions depending on the extent of the torture. Measured were for example the conductivity of the skin, the heart rate and frequency variability. In addition, a questionnaire was used giving the proband the opportunity to describe and rate the extent of their own psychological state of excitement by different symptoms such as shivering or attacks of sweating etc. Which ever parameters the scientists took a look at – in the average, the experimental scenario showed a measurable and clearly distinctive stress load. “The most relevant conclusion of our experiment is, that people tend to react realistically on interaction with virtual characters – independent from whether they are aware of the scenario not being real on a cognitive level”, says Slater. Interestingly enough this happens even when the virtual characters (as in this particular case) did not look very human, but were more similar to comic figures.

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