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.