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      A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments

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          Stanley Milgram's 1960s experimental findings that people would administer apparently lethal electric shocks to a stranger at the behest of an authority figure remain critical for understanding obedience. Yet, due to the ethical controversy that his experiments ignited, it is nowadays impossible to carry out direct experimental studies in this area. In the study reported in this paper, we have used a similar paradigm to the one used by Milgram within an immersive virtual environment. Our objective has not been the study of obedience in itself, but of the extent to which participants would respond to such an extreme social situation as if it were real in spite of their knowledge that no real events were taking place.


          Following the style of the original experiments, the participants were invited to administer a series of word association memory tests to the (female) virtual human representing the stranger. When she gave an incorrect answer, the participants were instructed to administer an ‘electric shock’ to her, increasing the voltage each time. She responded with increasing discomfort and protests, eventually demanding termination of the experiment. Of the 34 participants, 23 saw and heard the virtual human, and 11 communicated with her only through a text interface.


          Our results show that in spite of the fact that all participants knew for sure that neither the stranger nor the shocks were real, the participants who saw and heard her tended to respond to the situation at the subjective, behavioural and physiological levels as if it were real. This result reopens the door to direct empirical studies of obedience and related extreme social situations, an area of research that is otherwise not open to experimental study for ethical reasons, through the employment of virtual environments.

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          Most cited references 30

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          Electrodermal Activity

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            Digital chameleons: automatic assimilation of nonverbal gestures in immersive virtual environments.

            Previous research demonstrated social influence resulting from mimicry (the chameleon effect); a confederate who mimicked participants was more highly regarded than a confederate who did not, despite the fact that participants did not explicitly notice the mimicry. In the current study, participants interacted with an embodied artificial intelligence agent in immersive virtual reality. The agent either mimicked a participant's head movements at a 4-s delay or utilized prerecorded movements of another participant as it verbally presented an argument. Mimicking agents were more persuasive and received more positive trait ratings than nonmimickers, despite participants' inability to explicitly detect the mimicry. These data are uniquely powerful because they demonstrate the ability to use automatic, indiscriminate mimicking (i.e., a computer algorithm blindly applied to all movements) to gain social influence. Furthermore, this is the first study to demonstrate social influence effects with a nonhuman, nonverbal mimicker.
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              Activity in ventromedial prefrontal cortex covaries with sympathetic skin conductance level: a physiological account of a "default mode" of brain function.

              We examined neural activity related to modulation of skin conductance level (SCL), an index of sympathetic tone, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while subjects performed biofeedback arousal and relaxation tasks. Neural activity within the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) covaried with skin conductance level (SCL), irrespective of task. Activity within striate and extrastriate cortices, anterior cingulate and insular cortices, thalamus, hypothalamus and lateral regions of prefrontal cortex reflected the rate of change in electrodermal activity, highlighting areas supporting transient skin conductance responses (SCRs). Successful performance of either biofeedback task (where SCL changed in the intended direction) was associated with enhanced activity in mid-OFC. The findings point to a dissociation between neural systems controlling basal sympathetic tone (SCL) and transient skin conductance responses (SCRs). The level of activity in VMPFC has been related to a default mode of brain function and our findings provide a physiological account of this state, indicating that activity within VMPFC and OFC reflects a dynamic between exteroceptive and interoceptive deployment of attention.

                Author and article information

                Role: Academic Editor
                PLoS ONE
                PLoS ONE
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
                20 December 2006
                : 1
                : 1
                [1 ]simpleDepartment of Computer Science, University College London London, United Kingdom
                [2 ]simpleGuger Technologies OEG Schiedlberg, Austria
                [3 ]simpleSubDepartment of Clinical Health Psychology, University College London London, United Kingdom
                [4 ]simpleInstituto de Neurociencias de Alicante, Universidad Miguel Hernandez - Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Campus de San Juan, San Juan de Alicante, Spain
                [5 ]simpleInstitució Catalana de la Recerca i Estudis Avançats ‐ Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Virtual Reality Centre of Barcelona Barcelona, Spain
                University of Minnesota, United States of America
                Author notes
                * To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: melslater@

                Conceived and designed the experiments: MS. Performed the experiments: MS AA. Analyzed the data: MS CG. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: MS-V CG CB. Wrote the paper: MS MS-V. Other: Helped in the design of the experiment: MS-V NP CB. Provided system support, critical comments, and prepared multi-media materials for the paper: DS. Programmed the virtual environment: AD AA.

                Slater et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
                Page count
                Pages: 10
                Research Article
                Computer Science
                Computer Science/Applications
                Neuroscience/Cognitive Neuroscience



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