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A study using virtual reality changes our understanding of psychology of obedience

The computer program of this project is based on the one developed in the project Character Project at the UB, led by David Gallardo, lecturer of Psychology at the UB.

The computer program of this project is based on the one developed in the project Character Project at the UB, led by David Gallardo, lecturer of Psychology at the UB.

09/01/2019

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A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE –involving psychologists and computer scientists from the University of St. Andrews, the University of Barcelona, University of Queensland and University College London- challenges the traditional understanding of why people obey orders.

The known Milgram ‘obedience’ studies show how people obey instructions from an experimenter to inflict shocks on a ‘learner’ when s/he makes a mistake on a memory task. Milgram argues this happens because these people are so focussed on doing what they are asked that they hardly think of the consequences of their actions.

The new study, conducted using virtual reality, shows the subject of the experiment is aware of the participants asking for help in order to avoid those shocks. However, the subject obeys the instructions because s/he considers the objective of this research to be more important. That is, if the ‘learner’ makes mistakes during this task, the subject will inflict these shocks anyway because s/he thinks the benefits of this research are more important than the suffering of the victim.

Setphen Reicher, from the School of Psychology at St. Andrews, said “it’s not that people harm others because they are not aware or don’t care. In some ways, reality is even more disturbing: we can harm others despite caring about them because we think it is justified in furtherance or a worthier cause”. Megan Birney, from the University of Chester, has collaborated in the design of these studies in St. Andrews, and notes that “this is the old argument about serving ‘the greater good’ – a truly toxic idea’”.

Researcher Mar Gonzalez Franco, from Microsoft Research , conducted the research at the University College London Virtual Reality ‘Cave’. Gonzalez-Franco explains the importance of the study from a computer scientific perspective: “This study is an example of how virtual reality helps to understand difficult and important topics which would be too hard to do research on in ethical ways”.

Mel Slater, researcher at the UB and director of the research group EventLab, notes the study is “part of a wider program which shows that although people know this is part of a virtual reality simulation, they tend to behave much as they would in similar circumstances in reality. Hence, virtual reality offers huge opportunities for psychological and other social science research”. The computer program of this project is based on the one developed in the project Character Project at the UB, led by David Gallardo, lecturer of Psychology at the UB.

Megan Birney, social psychologist, notes that “for many years, people had doubts about Milgram’s claim that people obey the most harmful instructions simply because they don’t attend to the consequences of their actions but it was hard to do studies to refute it. This virtual study, part of a larger Economic and Social Research Council project on obedience, finally allows us to lay this argument to rest”.

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