People are willing to commit virtual torture too

Recently, virtual reality (VR) has been used in rehabilitation and has been shown to alleviate the pain associated with phantom limb syndrome. Now, a team of researchers is investigating the usefulness of VR in studies of social psychological phenomena that today would be considered highly unethical. In the initial part of the project, Slater et al have used an immersive VR environment to re-enact the classic experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s.

Milgram’s work on obedience to authority, was, and still is, extremely controversial. Participants in the experiments were recruited after responding to an ad in a newspaper, which offered $4.50 to take part in a study of “the effects of punishment on learning”. Upon their arrival to the laboratory, at Yale University, those who responded to the ad were told that they would assume the role of the “teacher” in the experiment. In another part of the room, behind a glass panel, the “student” was strapped to a chair. The participants were told that each time the student gave an incorrect answer to a word association game, they would administer to him an electric shock, with each successive shock increasing in voltage. The “student” was actually a confederate of the experimenter, who received no electric shocks, but acted as if he did.

Before the study, Milgram had asked a number of Yale psychology undergraduates what they thought the outcome of his experiment might be. All of them believed that a tiny minority of the participants – about 1% – would be sadistic enough to administer the maximum voltage (450 volts). The results were quite startling – overall, nearly 65% of participants were prepared to administer electric shocks of up to 450 volts, even when the actor shouted, screamed and told the participants that he had a heart condition. In one of the trials, 37 out of 40 were fully obedient.

Milgram’s experiments were inspired by the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the high-ranking Nazi officer who managed the mass transportation of Jews to concentration camps during World War II. Milgram set out to answer the question “Could it be that Eichmann, and his accomplices in the Holocaust, were just following orders?” More generally, to what extent will people follow instructions to do things against their conscience? The experiments were considered highly unethical because of the emotional stress inflicted on the participants. But they also raised troubling questions about human nature itself: could violence and destructiveness be an innate part of the human condition?

In the virtual re-enactments of Milgram’s experiments, participants were ‘ordered’ to administer ‘shocks’ to computer-generated characters. They were asked to complete the Autonomic Perceptions Questionnaire – a subjective assessment of how they felt – before and after the experiment. The results of the questionnaires correlated highly with objective measures of their physiological state, such as face temperature, heart rate and skin conductance rates (a measure of how much they are sweating). Both the subjective reports by the participants, and the objective measures of their stress levels, showed that they became stressed when administering ‘electric shocks’ to the virtual people.

Subjectively, behaviourally and physiologically, the participants reacted to the situation as if it was real. They interacted with, and sometimes even appeared to “care for” the computer characters, despite the knowledge that everything about them was artificial. This leads Slater and his colleagues to conclude that VR could be very useful in the study of social psychological phenomena, and they now aim to use VR to study the unresponsive bystander effect, according to which, a person is less likely to help someone in an emergency if there are other people around.

The current study was not a perfect replication of Milgram’s work, because the participants knew at all times that the “electric shocks” and the “student” receiving them were not real. If VR became so realistic as to be indistinguishable from reality, then its use in such experiments would raise the same ethical questions as Milgram’s work did.


Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. J. Abnormal Soc. Psychol. 67: 371-378. [Full text]

Slater M., et al. (2006) A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. PLoS ONE 1 : e39. [Full text] doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000039.



6 thoughts on “People are willing to commit virtual torture too

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  2. Apologies for the error in the text above. The link to the Neurophilosopher’s weblog is correct but the link text is not (it incorrectly says, ‘Mind Hacks’ when it should link here).

    I agree entirely that the experiment would raise the same ethical questions were the VR to be sufficiently realistic. In an interview on BBC radio 4’s Today programme Slater remarked that, despite the subjects knowing and being reminded that the context was artificial, they still responded with similar discomfort responses as they would to ‘real’ situations.

    Given this, it is going to be hard to sustain the ‘unreality’ argument in debates about the ethics of these experiments for very long. Since many virtual environments are perfectly real social spaces legislators are rapidly catching up with the need to categorise virtual abuse alongside other forms of abuse. I would be very interested to know whether ethics committees are keeping up with legislation on this issue.

  3. Ethically controversial as these important studies may be, I welcome a study illuminating the “bystander syndrome,” the “I don’t need to act, someone else will!” attitude. I would also like to see the Milgram study repeated (VR of course) where the participants are divided by the sexes. The U.N. Secretary-General’s disturbing study on Violence Against Women was received with a collective yawn. Why?

    Thanks again for your prolific blog.

  4. Very interesting site. The Milgram study could be compared with the Stanford prison experiment, by Zimbardo 1971, (ethically controversial too), which was represented in the film ‘Das Experiment’ (Hirshbiegel,2001), which mimics the situation in concentration camps like Dachau, Auschwitz or Villa Grimaldi. A country under a reign of terror of totalitarian governments is like a huge Milgram or Zimbardo experiment (I’m thinking about my country, Chile, under Pinochet in the 70s) and these ethical dilemmas can build a divided society between police and prisoners.

    Thanks for your work.

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