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Computer Characters Tortured for Science 306

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the shocking-research dept.
Rob Carr writes "Considered unethical to ever perform again with humans, researcher Mel Slater recreated the Milgram experiment in a immersive virtual environment. Subjects (some of whom could see and hear the computerized woman, others who were only able to read text messages from her) were told that they were interacting with a computer character and told to give increasingly powerful electric shocks when wrong answers were given or the 'woman' took too long to respond. The computer program would correspondingly complain and beg as the 'shocks' were ramped up, falling apparently unconscious before the last shock. The skin conductance and electrocardiograms of the subjects were monitored. Even though the subjects knew they were only 'shocking' a computer program, their bodies reacted with increased stress responses. Several of the ones who could see and hear the woman stopped before reaching the 'lethal' voltage, and about half considered stopping the study. The full results of the experimental report can be read online at PLoS One. Already, some (like William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute) are asking whether even this sanitized experiment is ethical."
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Computer Characters Tortured for Science

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  • by Capt James McCarthy (860294) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @03:40PM (#17380058) Journal
    So when does this come out for the Wii?
    • by Billosaur (927319) *

      Shortly after Grand Theft Auto: Busted By The Cops.

      • so is the fleshy on the end of the game controller a "buster" or a bustee? I could easily see potential for either; imagine game play in a max security prison trying to steer a course between 3 rival inmate gangs, a small group of sadistic asshole guards, and the parole board where alliances between the groups build and crumble muhahahah.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by foniksonik (573572)
      Late 2007... It's called "The SIMS, S&M Showdown" use your controller to whip, paddle and smack your partner into submission ;-p

      seriously I read about it somewhere
  • by MyLongNickName (822545) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @03:43PM (#17380092) Journal
    Take two groups: One has first gone through this "virtual torturing", the other is the control group. After this, each group will actually torture a volunteer in the same manner. Would the first group have less of an emotional response than the control group? I am sure there are many wrinkles to work out in the methodology, but this would be interesting to see the result of media on human response. It should pretty effectively answer who is right (or how right each side is) in this debate.
    • Fun for everyone! (Score:4, Interesting)

      by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @03:46PM (#17380120)
      First off, make it a male character, not a female character.

      Then ask them if they'd torture a criminal.

      After the torture (for those who do volunteer) tell them that there was a mistake and that the guy was innocent. But their assistance is needed with the real criminal.
      • Re:Fun for everyone! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by daeg (828071) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:20PM (#17380496)
        Expanding on what you said, do the experiment with eight groups.

        The first and second groups act as they did in this study.

        The second and third groups act as the first and second, but with a man.

        The fourth and fifth groups act as the first and second, but with a man, but of a different race (black subjects get a white victim, etc).

        The sixth and seventh groups act as the first and second, but with a man they are told is an enemy combatant.

        There are a lot of variations of this, and I doubt any of them are very ethical. But being unethical doesn't make the results uninteresting or invalid, but without a sufficiently large group, any results would be generally untrusted (but still interesting!).
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by QuantumG (50515) *
          The second group are double dipping! As you forgot the eigth group, I suggest that they do it with a chicken. A rubber chicken!
      • by a.d.trick (894813)

        And another thing: instead of calling it an experiment, call it experimental.

        It does make a difference how things are put. For instance, if it were even whispered that the N.I.C.E. wanted powers to experiment on criminals, you'd have all the old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity. Call it re-education of the mal-adjusted, and you have them all slobbering with delight that the brutal era of retributive punishment has at last come to an end. . . . You mustn't experiment on children; bu

      • by Valdrax (32670) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @06:25PM (#17381896)
        Milgram ran at least 20 experiments along this theme. The end result of variations in the base experiment revealed the emotional distance between the "teacher" and the "learner" had a very strong effect on the likeliness to continue. The more dehumanized the learner was, the more readily the teacher went further and further. Conversely, the more empathy the teacher was encouraged to have (say by seeing or directly hearing the learner through an open door instead of a speaker), the less likely they continued.

        By demonizing the subject as a criminal, you would definitely observe a higher incidence of going too far. Demonizing your enemies is a central tactic in all societies committing to war for a reason -- it makes it easier to kill the other guy when you don't see him as being the same as you.
    • That's a neat idea.

      Personally, I don't see anything wrong with either version of the experiment. Nobody is actually getting hurt, nad afterwards the unknowning victim (the button pusher) is told that it's all fake either way.

      What's the problem here.

      Actually, I'm surprised more people quit with the computer program now, knowing it was just a program, than with the person in the original experiment. Are we as a species, finally, collectively growing spines?
      • by Qzukk (229616)
        I don't see anything wrong with either version of the experiment. Nobody is actually getting hurt, nad afterwards the unknowning victim (the button pusher) is told that it's all fake either way.

        It's the "unknowing victim" part that's at issue here, whether or not they were told after the fact that it was all an act (though in this case, one would presume that they would understand that nobody is being hurt, yet the results show that it's not that clear cut...)

        That said, it would be interesting to compare th
      • by CyberLord Seven (525173) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:23PM (#17380522)
        Sure no one gets hurt. In truth, no one was tortured in Milgram's experiment either. The problem arrives when you realize that you have asked someone to "punish" another person and they do it strictly on your perceived authority.

        Whether your "volunteer" has actually harmed someone or not, the psychological trauma is very real. That's the part where they describe the very real stress indicators. For those that don't know, the Nazi's kept free liquor flowing to the guards in the concentration camps. Why did they need liquor? Because of the emotional trauma associated with performing such vile acts on another human being.

        It makes me wonder if the human subjects of this experiment truly trusted the statements of those in authority that they were NOT shocking real humans. Was something clicking in the backs of their heads warning them that they may be torturing real humans instead of electronic simulations?

        Too bad Philip K. Dick is dead.

  • by dpbsmith (263124) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @03:46PM (#17380130) Homepage
    I don't see anything in the study that says that they made any attempt to find out whether or not the subjects had ever heard about the original Milgram experiment.

    The Milgram subjects almost certainly had no knowledge of whether the situation was real or what the purpose of the experiment was, and probably believed that they were "supposed" to follow orders.

    Today's subjects may well have heard something. Even if they couldn't have named "Milgram" as the investigator, they may have had more than an inkling that the purpose of the experiment was to see whether they were virtual sadists, and may have suspected that, despite their instructions, the "approved" behavior was to not to follow orders.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Billosaur (927319) *

      In order for the study to have been tightly-controlled and more importantly, valid, they would have had to control for that. They may have asked if the participants knew who Milgram was, but they would probably have not asked to if they had heard of the experiment, as it would have introduced a slight bias. Mind you, Milgram's experiment was ground-breaking in that it showed that even ordinary people can perform actions contrary to societal norms, which was the thesis based on the "I was only following orde

      • by QuantumG (50515) *

        "I was only following orders" cant of concentration camp operators during WWII. It is of course not an excuse
        Riiight. The difference between the Milgram experiment and Nazi Germany is pretty significant I think. Last time I checked, the Milgram experiment didn't involve guys in trenchcoats threatening to kill you and your entire family if you don't do your "duty".

        • by dr_dank (472072) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @05:37PM (#17381358) Homepage Journal
          Last time I checked, the Milgram experiment didn't involve guys in trenchcoats threatening to kill you and your entire family if you don't do your "duty".

          That is true, but the authority exuded by the "researcher" in the Milgram experiment is similar. The person doing the shocking feels relieved of responsibility and has a figure to point to if things went sour. It's not like they're going down the street shocking people at random of their own volition, they're being told to in the context of a scientific experiment.

          With this kind of disconnect, the results of the Milgram experiment weren't very "shocking".
        • by hazem (472289) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @06:30PM (#17381962) Journal
          Riiight. The difference between the Milgram experiment and Nazi Germany is pretty significant I think. Last time I checked, the Milgram experiment didn't involve guys in trenchcoats threatening to kill you and your entire family if you don't do your "duty".

          That's what is so ground-breaking/terrifying about Milgram. He showed you don't need all those coercive techniques to get "normal" people to do terrible things. You just need someone who is an apparent authority to guide them and absolve them while they're doing it.

          He showed that you don't need a whole lot of evil people to do those evil things. You just need a lot of normal people with a few evil people in authority. There was nothing special about the Nazis - we are all (collectively) capable of attrocities, and it doesn't even take much prompting.
      • by FroBugg (24957) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @09:12PM (#17383196) Homepage
        The article mentions that such and such of those who stopped early claimed to be familiar with the prior work.

        It's perfectly possible that they asked questions like that after the experiment. That way they get their data and it doesn't put any ideas in the subjects' heads.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @03:56PM (#17380204)
      Ha ha, you fail. The REAL objective of the study was to test literacy in slashdot posters.
      FTFA...

      "For those 12 in the VC who wanted to stop before the end, 5 claimed to be well-acquainted with the original Milgram study"

      The secondary objective was to test for the proportion of slashdot readers that RTFA.
      • MOD PARENT UP (Score:5, Insightful)

        by dpbsmith (263124) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:15PM (#17380448) Homepage
        Also, "ouch" and "touché."

        But it's not mentioned in the "methodology" section, and I think the paragraph you mention does cast some doubt on the validity of the results:

        "For those 12 in the VC who wanted to stop before the end, 5 claimed to be well-acquainted with the original Milgram study, and therefore we cannot rule out the possibility that this influenced their behaviour. However, if we treat 'wanting to stop' as a binary response variable in order to test for differences between the proportions (using binary logistic regression) then the VC was significantly different from the HC (?2 = 6.691 on 1 d.f., P = 0.0097) whereas knowledge of Milgram did not have a significant impact (?2 = 1.525 on 1 d.f., P = 0.22) and there was no interaction effect between group and knowledge of Milgram."

        In the first place, this seems a little bit like throwing in a statistical fudge factor, since it does not say in their methodology that they planned to ask about knowledge of Milgram after the experiment, and they seem to have applied this statistical test a posteriori, whereas statistical tests are only valid if the test to be performed is stated in advance.

        In the second place, it's all very well to say that five of the subjects "claimed to be well-acquainted" with the Milgram experiment, but that does not take into account the number of subjects that, while not well-acquainted with it, might nevertheless have had some vague or even subconscious knowledge of it. The Milgram study has been around a long time and is practically in the folkways.

        There are probably millions of people who would say they knew nothing about John B. Watson's experiments with rats, who nevertheless would be extremely familiar with the idea of running rats through a maze.
      • by Billosaur (927319) *

        "For those 12 in the VC who wanted to stop before the end, 5 claimed to be well-acquainted with the original Milgram study."

        A lot of people "claim" a lot of knowledge they do not in fact have. I suspect if you'd mentioned the experimental design without mentioning the author, very few would have remembered Milgram's name; conversely, if you mentioned Milgram's name, I doubt many would know the great and gory details of the experiment.

        If in fact these claims are true, that invalidates the results to some degree, evidenced by the rest of the sentence our anonymous friend didn't bother showing:

        ...and therefore we cannot rule out the possibility that this influenced their behaviour.

    • Mod Parent Up (Score:4, Insightful)

      by fyoder (857358) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:36PM (#17380636) Homepage Journal
      I'd mod you up if I had points, as this is a very good question. How many people reading of the Milgram experiment have wondered how they would have performed? One hopes one would have been the exception, refusing to be a tool of authority used to harm others. Given the opportunity to participate in a recreation of the experiment, one knows how to perform in order to maintain one's self image as a decent human being.
    • by Kupek (75469) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @05:40PM (#17381390)
      The point was not to redo the Miligram study in a virtual environment. The point was to demonstrate that people still feel conflicted when harming a subject they know isn't real. That result allows for virtual experiments where the real ones would be unethical.
  • I wonder how different the study would be if the subject of the, um, shocks wasn't an average woman but some burly dude like the Gears of War soldiers or maybe Daniel Craig as Bond, or on the other end of the spectrum a child? Assuming the responses of the virtual subjects were exactly the same (or deemed close enough) regardless of appearance, how they were "treated" by folks taking the study would show a lot.

    Also.. the woman in the experiment was really unrealistic-looking. I can imagine level or realis
  • Big Deal (Score:3, Funny)

    by jpnews (647965) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @03:49PM (#17380150)
    This kind of thing takes place in another "immersive virtual environment [secondlife.com]" every day.
  • by Sloppy (14984) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @03:51PM (#17380170) Homepage Journal
    Test subject Andrew "Ender" Wiggin was reported to say, "It took a while to master this VR, but I'm getting better. The simulated victim spills the beans 70% of the time now, but I want to try for 75%."
  • The original experiment showed that the vast majority of people will kill others if they are told to do so by someone in authority.
     
    • by Red Flayer (890720) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:04PM (#17380304) Journal
      The original experiment showed that the vast majority of people will kill others if they are told to do so by someone in authority.
      Umm, no. Not at all. Milgram's experiment was designed to help determine why people would kill when told to do so by authority figures. It showed that some people would cause harm (not kill) another person when instructed to do so by an authority figure.

      John Dean (former aide to Nixon) treats this, and more, in his book "Conservatives Without Conscience", where he helps explain the reasons so many people blindly follow authority (and why some people so like to be blindly followed). Milgram's work was seminal in the study of authoritarian followers, and you do it no justice by blatantly misrepresenting it.

      At any ate, the point of this study is that some people do not emotionally differentiate between virtual actions and real actions.
      • by Colin Smith (2679)

        It showed that some people would cause harm (not kill) another person when instructed to do so by an authority figure.
        Yeah sure, harm to the point of death. 450 volts is quite enough to kill.

         
      • by PingSpike (947548) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:30PM (#17380582)
        I agree.

        This made me think of a personal antecdote. I don't know how many people played any games from the dungeon keeper series, but I used to play the first one a lot. One of the hallmarks of the game is that you're an evil character. However, as much as the ability to play a different persona appeals to me, every time I set out to play an evil character in any game I end up feeling remorse for killing innocents, even though they aren't real.

        Anyway, in dungeon keeper (Real time strategy) you start out with a group of loyal imps. They are weak, small and do all of the mining and grunt work in your dungeon. They are unique in the game in that they can be created, and will always serve you no matter how poorly you treat them. The game allows you to slap creatures to make them work harder. There is little downside in doing this with imps since they won't flee the dungeon in anger and since they are poor fighters their health level isn't really important. Logically, all imps should be regularly slapped for maximum dungeon efficancy. And in fact, the computer controlled rival keepers do just that.

        But I couldn't really do it as a matter of course. I actually felt bad, knowing full well that they weren't real. They made noises like they were in pain but of course thats just the computer. It was only when I was in a dire spot (doing a fast gem seam grab at the start of the map and then fortifying the walls to hold off an attack) that I would slap them, and even then I felt kind of bad.

        So I can sort of understand how the results are similar to the original experiment. Its evoking an emotional response, and playing it again logic.
        • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

          by QuantumG (50515) *
          I'm gunna go out on a limb here and suggest that your parents got divorced at an early age and your mother got full custody right?

          Are you an accountant now? Do you do tax audits?
          • by PingSpike (947548)
            My parents are still married, a little over ~25 years.

            I've paid some one to do my taxes my entire life, I can't stand doing them.

            Enjoy the fall from the breaking limb. :P
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by venicebeach (702856)
        It showed that some people would cause harm (not kill) another person when instructed to do so by an authority figure.
        According to Blass (milgram biographer & social psychologist), "the percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages remains remarkably constant, between 61% and 66%, regardless of time or location".
      • by rodentia (102779)
        Thanks, Red.

        At any ate[sic], the point of this study is that some people do not emotionally differentiate between virtual actions and real actions.

        Thus an experimental basis for the assertion that games can create the mental conditions necessary for a criminal act. Also:

        Even though the subjects knew they were only 'shocking' a computer program, their bodies reacted with increased stress responses.

        Which kind of belies the casual cant around these parts that games are benign entertainments. Is
      • One more comment.

        At any ate, the point of this study is that some people do not emotionally differentiate between virtual actions and real actions.

        I disagree that this is the point of this study.

        We know that people do not differentiate between virtual actions and real actions. This is largely because the way we understand the actions of others is by simulating them ourselves, so whether we are simulating a real or virtual action we are experiencing the same thing. (See mirror neurons [wikipedia.org] for more abo

  • People can get pretty stressed over video games, why should this be considered any different? They *knew* it was a computer in the back. Maybe it just shows that humans are capable of exhibiting empathy and are emotional? Maybe the opposite: perhaps it shows that some humans are a little more coldblooded than others and are capable of committing acts society considers not appropriate(regardless of the human/synthesized element? *insert something about Jack Thompson here*

    How about horror themed video games?

    • How about horror themed video games?

      This was the first thing that came to my mind. What are the implications for video games? If video game violence arouses the same psychological responses as real violence, then overcoming inhibitions in video games may lead to the same in real life. I know that's not a popular argument on Slashdot, but it seems to me to be an obvious connection to make.

      (Personally, I have experienced the same myself. I would not engage in slave trading in Elite, and I was initia

  • Why unethical? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rewt66 (738525) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @03:57PM (#17380218)
    I consider myself as having more ethics than the average. I am a Christian (yeah, hold your slams, that's not the point). I try to live consistent with what Christianity teaches. More than once I have said what I felt needed to be said, even though there was some chance that it might cost me my job. Once I have done what I felt needed done, even though there was some chance that it might cost me my life.

    I don't see what's morally or ethically wrong with the experiment, even with a real human subject. I mean, the "victim" isn't actually being shocked, whether the "victim" is human or virtual.

    Is the fear that the experiment desensitizes the subject to situations where they are asked to obey a command that they should refuse? But the results indicate that the subject is likely to already be in that state. If properly debriefed at the end of the experiment, the subject is more likely to refuse such a command in the future, rather than less.

    So can someone explain to me what's unethical about this?
    • Re:Why unethical? (Score:5, Informative)

      by justinbach (1002761) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:15PM (#17380444) Homepage
      Speaking as a cognitive scientist, I can tell you that dealing with IRBs (internal review boards) for getting experimental approval gives you a different appreciation of the term "ethics" than might be understood by someone trying to live a morally sound lifestyle (for which, btw, I applaud you).

      Essentially, in order for an IRB to approve a study to be performed using human subjects, one of two requirements must be met: either there is ABSOLUTELY NO RISK involved on the part of the subject (i.e. simple psychophysical tests of perception and so forth), or the risks must be outweighed by the potential gain in scientific knowledge that the experiment offers (i.e. clinical trials of drugs that, while risky, hold the promise of curing serious illnesses).

      All studies require that subjects sign an IRB-approved consent form that enumerates the risks inherent in the experiment (or lack thereof), and IRBs require a submission of experimental intent and aim so that they may weigh the potential risks and benefits of the experiment. Some people would argue that *any* experiment is ethical as long as you can find subjects willing to be a part of them and sign a liability waiver, but the reality of the situation is that before any subject even has the option to sign their life away an IRB must first approve that such a situation would be ethically sound. Without IRB approval, you won't get published, and without being published, you won't get funding. That's the cycle.

      Milgram's original experiments were deemed unethical because of the psychological trauma experienced by the subjects being ordered to up the voltage. They were put in the emotionally distressing situation of having to choose between following the experimenter's (i.e. authority figure's) orders and their own moral code, and this situation has since been deemed unacceptable. The reason for this is that the experiment's potential insights into the frailty of human morality in the face of authority simply weren't interesting or essential enough for the advancement of science to justify the risks of seriously traumatizing the subjects.

      As far as I can tell, the reason this experiment is more experimentally justifiable is simply because the "victim" is explicitly virtual--a fact of which subjects are aware--so the situation, as it doesn't involve hurting actual people, isn't as emotionally traumatizing.
    • Because the victims are the participants, not the "victim" in the other room. That's why it's unethical. Feeling forced to harm someone that horribly is extremely psychologically traumatic.
    • Re:Why unethical? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ebuck (585470) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:43PM (#17380732)
      It's not the damage to the "virtual" victim that's considered the side effect, the Milgram experiment never damaged the "victim" virtual or otherwise.

      It's the damage to the administrator of the virtual torture that's considered unethical. As long as that person has any common sense, they'll eventually discover that they are torturing the subject, and if they persist, they will be led to beileve that they have killed the subject. This should bring the administrator in conflict with their sense of morals, and the experiment is designed to break the virtues of compassion and human decency in a high-pressure situation.

      We have all felt the pains of high pressure sales tactics, imagine the mistakes you could make if you were initially told that the test was harmless, then put under high pressure to continue it, eventually leading to the death (real in your point-of-view) of the subject? That's the Milgram experiment in a nut shell, and it relies on abusing the trust the administrator has in the researcher. The researcher deliberately lies to the administrator to achieve the desired results.

      The fact that you're later debriefed won't console you because the experimenter lied to you, so they could lie to you about "it's all fake, after all". It also prevents resolution of the pain, because complaining about the stresses incurred while virtually torturing someone will either ostracize you from peers or be dismissed as non-real stress. If you actually tortured someone you could atone (if you wish to) for your actions by helping those you hurt, seeking forgiveness within your faith, or by deeds. But nobody understands redressing virtual wrongs; there's no avenue for repentance.

      As a good Christian (in the best meaning of the phrase) can you condone the treatment of the real subjects, the ones administring the virtual shocks?

      There's also other scientific grounds for dismissal. If the researcher deliberately manipulates the administrator to achieve the desired results, then is it science? In other "hard" science fields, manipulation of the experiment with a desire to achieve certain results would be a serious infraction of the scientific process, but in the near-voodoo corners of Psychology, it's considered a technique.

      The news is that they've reproduced it. This one isn't nearly as reproducable as it claims to be, and the effect doesn't support what every Psychology student is told; that "You would do the same thing in the same situation." which (fortunately) isn't true according to the less fantastic failures to reproduce the same outcome.
      • by rewt66 (738525)
        OK, I see your point about who is being harmed. I think it's a valid point. At this time I don't know whether I agree with it or not, but it is, at a minimum, a real issue. And if the issue is people are harmed when they are pressured into doing things that are against their conscience, you've got a dilemma with the virtual victims. Since there's no real victim, the subjects are less going against their conscience. But that makes the experiment less able to test what it's trying to test, which is exact
        • by Valdrax (32670)
          Since there's no real victim, the subjects are less going against their conscience.

          Matthew 5:27-30. Sins committed in the mind and intentions to commit sins are as good as having committed the sins themselves. As a Christian, you should oppose pressuring these people into choosing to assault and murder others in intent even if they do not do so in reality. The mortal burden on their souls is exactly the same. This should trouble you even if you fail to sympathize with the burden this places on their mi
    • Re:Why unethical? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Valdrax (32670) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:57PM (#17380864)
      I consider myself as having more ethics than the average. I am a Christian (yeah, hold your slams, that's not the point). I try to live consistent with what Christianity teaches.

      Funny. So were most of the original test subjects in Milgram's 1963 experiments. This stands an an irrelevant comment except to basically brag about how you feel morally superior to most people -- and then you have the sheer, unmitigated gall to ask that people "hold [their] slams." That's Pride. We are all sinners; remember that, and you'll do far better as a Christian than to parade around like a Pharisee waving your religiousity around like it's a badge, proclaming that you have "more ethics than average."

      I don't see what's morally or ethically wrong with the experiment, even with a real human subject. I mean, the "victim" isn't actually being shocked, whether the "victim" is human or virtual.

      The victims are the test subjects -- the people being pressured into harming other people in spite of their normal moral inclination to avoid such a thing. They are being put under stress and are being led to sincerely attempt to cause mortal harm to another to avoid the displeasure of an authority figure. They are caught between their conscience and the pressure to conform. In the end they are harmed in two ways: (a) they are put under immense stress, (b) they are led to commit a deeply wrong act that they would've never considered.

      If tempting people to hurt others and causing distress and emotional turmoil (and in one subject seizures) aren't unethical in your worldview, then I think you need to hit the Good Book a little harder and work some more on those superior ethics of yours.
    • by szembek (948327)
      It is not unethical. I believe that if it was re-evaluated this would be determined. Any distress that is caused to the participants would be immediately relieved once they learned that no victim was really being shocked. The new study with 'virtual' victims serves no purpose. Also If you were sick enough to continue issuing the shocks than the psychological harm caused is irrelevant. Psychological 'Harm' is fairly harmless as far as I'm concerned. It is not as though they were issuing these shocks for seve
  • Hey, surprise! Autonomic responses can't be suppressed by conscious, upper cognitive reasoning. If it could, lie detectors wouldn't exist.

    This is a great example of a researcher doing an experiment with zero scientific relevance solely for mainstream press coverage.

    (Yes, lie detectors are BS, but the principle upon which they are based would be entirely useless, not just mostly useless.)
    • Hey, surprise! Autonomic responses can't be suppressed by conscious, upper cognitive reasoning. If it could, lie detectors wouldn't exist.

      They can't be reliably interpreted, so Lie Detectors don't, in fact, exist.

  • by purduephotog (218304) <hirsch@nospaM.inorbit.com> on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:11PM (#17380394) Homepage Journal
    Something I've yet to see discussed is how this will impact perception of 'photoshopped' pornography. Right now it is illegal to possess any form of 'child' pornography (rightfully so) - and there have been some defense attempts to show that the images aren't real- they're photoshopped. But if they affect the brain in the same manner... well, I'm certainly not qualified to judge the ramifications. Perhaps steeper sentences will come about- who knows... ?

    And then there's the more obvious- kill or be killed- games that exist. Not to dip into the Matrix "Your mind makes it real" mentality that you see written into laws now adays targeting violent games but there may be some form of truth to that axiom. To some individuals that can not or will not socialize this may provide the tipping point that triggers their anti-social behaviour.

    Interesting research. It'll be more interesting to see how the ethic committees respond.
    • by Eideewt (603267)
      What's wrong with Photoshopped child pornography? If no children are being harmed, then why can't interested parties get together and imagine whatever they like?
    • But if they affect the brain in the same manner... well, I'm certainly not qualified to judge the ramifications. Perhaps steeper sentences will come about- who knows... ?

      The basis for making kiddy porn illegal is the harm to the child. If no child was harmed because someone took a young looking 18 year old and PSed her a bit, then no law was broken. You can't outlaw porn that resembles kiddy porn but doesn't involve kids because then you wouldn't have a reasonable standard for declaring a porno legal/ill

    • by Phanatic1a (413374) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @06:44PM (#17382094)
      . Right now it is illegal to possess any form of 'child' pornography (rightfully so) - and there have been some defense attempts to show that the images aren't real- they're photoshopped.

      Well, no, that's not true, at least not in the US.

      There *was* a law passed which made possession of the mere depiction of child porn illegal. Even if it was a completely computer generated image, or line drawing, or even a young-looking adult dressed up in, say, a Girl Scout uniform, it would be every bit as illegal as actual photographs of the rape of a 5-year-old. All that was required was for the image to "appear" to be a minor engaged in sexual conduct. And, too, it wasn't just pictures, but any kind of depiction, like a written story.

      The Supreme Court rightly determined that that law was unconstitutional. Several years ago. The case was Free Speech Coalition v. Ashcroft.
  • Big difference (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ErGalvao (843384) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:11PM (#17380400) Homepage Journal
    There's a big difference: Since the participants were well aware that the subject was a computer character this experiment seems to be basically about psychological/physiological responses from the participants, while the original experiment was much more interesting as people really believed they were hurting human beings.

    That's why the original experiment, IMHO, is so important: because it exposed the risks of "obedience-without-thinking".

    But then again, I have little knowledge about the whole thing, so these are just my impressions.
  • by DeeSnider (899643) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:21PM (#17380508)
    And instead of becoming accustomed to the virtual person and ceasing to empathise, many volunteers became more anxious as the study continued. Measures of stress, such as heart rate and sweatiness of palms, increased. These measures are nearly impossible to fake, and confirmed for Slater that the volunteers were actually feeling uncomfortable, rather than performing as they thought the experimenter would expect.

    I've got to wonder what the participants' exposure to video games or other "virtual environments" would have on their responses. To a gamer, I'm not sure rapid heart rate, and sweaty palms indicate increased anxiety. They might have just been "getting into the game."

    I remember when Half-Life first came out my friend and I spent a lot of time running around beating the innocent bystanders with our crowbars and watching them beg for forgiveness. We weren't doing it because we were sadists, just curious gamers. We'd never seen NPC's react in such a realistic way before, and thought it was "cool". My girlfriend came into the room while we were doing this and was horrified, got really upset and asked us to stop. Not being as avid a gamer, I don't think she was used to dissociating her emotions from video game characters.

    I don't think video game violence numbs players to real world violence, but it sure numbs them to video game violence. Seems to me like prior experience would play a major role in your reaction to this experiment.
  • Why is this ethical? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by BlueWaldo (651162)
    If the Milgram experiment was unethical how is this one different? They replaced the person who was being fake tortured. The ill effects could still be caused to the person who finds out they are willing to harm someone. The person being replaced was in on it in the first place. Am I missing something? If I'm not I struggle to see how Milgram was unethical.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Milgram was deemed unethical because the shockers thought they really were hurting a person, and therefore felt various levels of guilt and stress.

      Despite the fact that all of the participants of this experiment knew that they were not hurting anyone, they still felt various levels of stress when given an audio/visual representation of their actions (compared to relatively minor reactions when interacting through a text messaging client), even though the display was of a very low quality. It would be diffi
  • Doesn't everyone at least try to play this game in all of the Adventure games they get?

    Let's see what happens when we push that stupid git Legolas into the path of the marauding monster?
  • I didn't read the discussion of the paper, but I'm curious if any of this can be attributed to the Uncanny Valley [wikipedia.org] theory.
  • Since this experiment was performed in the US, maybe the participants were just afraid that if they went too far, they'd be flagged by Homeland Security as possible terrorists. Or, maybe they were afraid that the testers (or other people reviewing the results) would think lowly of them. That would help explain the stress/nervousness.
  • by banerjek (1040522) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:49PM (#17380786) Homepage
    When people respond to a computer character the same way they would a person or a living thing, it's a sign that people relate a bit too closely to the virtual world.

    I hear people talking about TV and movie characters (i.e. actors pretending to be people who don't exist in the first place) as if they are real. People pay real money for virtual goods. However, I've also heard soldiers (particular pilots) compare real combat to video games. It seems like the line between virtual reality and actual reality is pretty dim for some.

    But given the amount of time people spend on TV, in front of computers, or playing video games, this is hardly surprising.
  • PETA (Score:5, Funny)

    by kybred (795293) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:50PM (#17380798)
    People for the Ethical Treatment of Avatars.
  • by edwardpickman (965122) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @04:53PM (#17380820)
    When they gave the test to Donald Rumesfeld it took three techs to pry the button out of his hand. They said it was the giggling that was really creepy.
  • I couldn't find numbers in TFA, so it would be interesting to know if the current subjects were more or less likely to stop the administration of shocks before the "lethal" dosage was applied, compared to the original subjects that delivered shocks to a human actor.
  • by exp(pi*sqrt(163)) (613870) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @05:21PM (#17381136) Journal
    ...when computers have been granted rights, machines will be seeking some pretty heavy compensation for this experiment retroactively. I'd hate to be the grandkids of the experimenters who did this.
  • by antispam_ben (591349) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @09:00PM (#17383142) Journal
    Already, some (like William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute) are asking whether even this sanitized experiment is ethical.

    The ethical concerns in both the real and virutal experiments appear quite close, as the goal, whether the "victim" is an animated charicature or a human actor screaming as if in pain (or not, as if dead), is to manipulate the emotions of the test volunteer while seeing how far he or she will go in hurting others "in the name of science."
    Outside of scientific tests, emotional manipulation of course has a long history, and advertising has always been full of it (no pun intended, but if the shoe fits...). Interesting examples of such strong emotional manipulation are in several of the stories in the book "The Mind's I" [amazon.com] by Dennett and Hoftsadter, and there's a controversial example in the UN anti-landmine video at http://stoplandmines.org [stoplandmines.org].

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