Milgram meet the 21st Century: Virtual Obedience?


The massive ethical issues surrounding Milgram’s study of obedience have always made it difficult to replicate it in a psychological setting (although this hasn’t stopped TV companies jumping on the concept). Recently in the UK a group of psychologists at UCL have worked around this problem using virtual reality.

Each of the 23 participants wore a VR headset and had to teach a ‘virtual’ woman a word pair task. As in the original study the participant were requested to administer increasingly large electric shocks to this ‘virtual woman’. Interestingly, even though the participants knew that the woman was not real six of them chose to withdraw and became defiant participants. Other findings also support the findings of Milgram.

It is of interest that the findings are similar over 40 years later, however, other factors could have influenced the findings – many people now know about the experiment and what was expected to be found. Still, this is an interesting use of technology to avoid ethical issues; maybe this might not be the last ‘virtual replication’ that we see.

On a bit of a side note you can find more about Milgram on this video about his obedience experiments or listen to “The Milgram Obedience Song” which has snipits from the actual studies.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378. [Abstract | Full Text PDF]

Slater, M., Antley, M., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Guger, C., Barker, C., Pistrang, N. & Sanchez-Vives, M.V. (2006). A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. PLOS ONE, 1, e39 (open access).

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