Virtual Torture

In the 1960s Dr. Stanley Milgram set off a firestorm of
controversy with his scientifically illuminating but ethically
questionable experiments on obedience. Milgram tricked volunteers
into thinking they were punishing others (played by actors) with
electrical shocks. The idea was to see how far the volunteers would
go when prompted by an authority figure. Some of the participants
in the tests were traumatized by what they had done, and more than
40 years later, the ethics of the tests still serve as fodder for
heated debates.

Today, as Kerry Smith reports for
BioEd Online, modern researchers are
trying to sidestep many of the ethical quandaries involved in the
experiments by recreating them in ‘immersive virtual environments.’
What these experiments have found is that torture doesn’t need to
be real for people to act like it is.

In a
recently released study, Professor Mel
Slater of University College London recreated Milgram’s
obedience experiments in a virtual reality. Slater had his
subjects administer electrical shocks to a computer-generated
woman and tested their reactions. Half of the participants could
see an image of the woman, while the other half communicated
with her only through text. All of the participants knew that
the woman wasn’t real, yet many of them became increasingly
anxious as the experiment progressed, experiencing increased
heart rates and sweaty palms. According to Smith, ‘these
measures are nearly impossible to fake,’ indicating that
participants were actually affected by their virtual actions. In
the end, the participants who could see a computer-generated
image of their victim were more likely to stop the tests than
those who communicated solely through text.

Considering the results of the experiment, the wider
implications of computer-generated torture become even more
disturbing. Writing for the
San Antonio Current, Aaron Delwiche
calls 2006 ‘a banner year for torture,’ citing recent political
developments, horror movies, and the myriad ‘torture manuals’
available on the internet for the computer game ‘The Sims.’ On
one website, the narrator describes her torture
victims, saying, ‘They scream & gnash their teeth, begging
me, their cruel, heartless deity, to have mercy. I am laughing
with much glee.’ Delwiche believes that our gravest concerns
should be with the torture atrocities taking place in the real
world, like at Abu Ghraib, and our personal culpability in them.
Nevertheless, his analysis of torture in the Sims virtual world
— ‘We’re not just watching the atrocities unfold on the screen
when playing these games; we’re actually directing the pain
ourselves’ — raises new concerns in light of Slater’s

As Slater’s tests prove, just because the torture is virtual
doesn’t mean its implications aren’t real. This tension between the
real and virtual worlds has many people uneasy about the virtual
torture experiments. Professor Slater insists that his experiment
‘reopens the door to… an area of research that is otherwise not
open to experimental study for ethical reasons.’ But some question
this conclusion. Although the subjects knew that the experiments
were in virtual reality, their reactions to the experience were
entirely real — creating a new twist on an old ethical dilemma. As
a post on the
New Scientist‘s technology blog
puts it: ‘If the same distress was caused, surely the experiment
is just as unethical?’

Go there >>
Virtual Reality Shocker

Go there, too >>
A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram
Obedience Experiments

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