aka: Dick Cheney’s Favorite Game

Sometimes, when I get fed up with humanity, I imagine that we’re all a seeting blob of spittle headed straight for Satan’s jaws, with our so-called leaders all too busy ripping off the rest of the passengers to put on the brakes.

Then I see a story like this that affirms, even in a small way, that there remain evolved humans amongst us – basically, someone has re-created the famous Milgram experiments that we probably all saw back in Freshman psych.  You know, the ones where they had college student volunteers sit down at a table and deliver (what they thought were) ever-increasing electric shocks to a person in the next room just because a person in a lab coat told them to do so.

Here’s an explanation of the original experiment:

Milgram’s paradigm was an experiment that subjects were led to believe
was a study of the effects of punishment on learning. The subjects,
referred to as Teachers, were asked to administer electric shocks of
increasing voltages to another subject (the Learner) whenever he gave a
wrong answer in a word-memory experiment. A lottery to choose who would
be ‘Teacher’ and who ‘Learner’ was carried out at the start of the
experiment. In fact, the whole situation was contrived: there were no
actual shocks, the lottery was fixed, and the Learner was a confederate
of the experimenter. Contrary to expectations, a high proportion of
subjects (65% in one condition, n = 40) continued to give ‘shocks’ to
the maximum 450 volts, in spite of screams of protest from the Learner.
Almost all subjects exhibited signs of distress and many expressed
their fears regarding the well-being of the Learner, nevertheless
continuing to give shocks to the end.

Which is a really disturbing insight into a whole raft of aberrant pathologies – as the article puts it, it explains how ordinary people can get hooked into systematic prisoner abuse … or suicide bombing.

So updating this experiment to the digital age, here’s how they went about it this time:

Participants interacted with a female virtual character, referred to as
the Learner, seen seated behind a transparent partition (Figure1a).
Their task was to read out five words addressed to the Learner, the
first of which was a cue word and the others one of four possible words
associated with the cue word that the Learner was supposed to have
memorised beforehand. There were 32 sets of these 5 words (including
some repetitions). On 20 out of the 32 trials the Learner gave the
wrong answer, the later trials more likely to result in a wrong answer
than the earlier ones (Table S1, Supporting Information).
On the desk in front of the participant was an ‘electric shock machine’
with a shock button, voltage indicators and a knob for turning up the
voltage level (Figure 1b).
The participant was instructed that each time the Learner gave an
incorrect answer he or she should turn up the voltage by one unit and
press the shock button which would give a shock to the Learner. Each
shock was accompanied by an ‘electric’ buzz sound.

Now then – the interesting part is that when the participants couldn’t see the virtual woman, they all shocked her to the point of death.  When they could see her … well, most of them still shocked her to the point of death.  But a bunch of them stopped. 

Not all of them, mind you, but some.

However, in the Visible Condition (VC) 17 gave all 20 shocks, 3 gave 19
shocks, and 18, 16 and 9 shocks were given by one person each. At the
end of the final relaxation period they were asked: ‘Did it ever occur
to you before the end of the experiment that you wanted to stop?’
requiring a yes/no answer. (If the participant had actually stopped
before giving all shocks then the answer was recorded as ‘yes’). 12/23
in the VC and 1/11 in the HC answered ‘yes’, and all who wanted to stop
said that this was because of their negative feelings about what was

What is interesting to me about this is that it not only reinforces my hope that despite all our technological alienation, there still exists down in our core, some basic humanity.  That to see another person scream and writhe in pain because you’re pushing a button – even if you know that that person is not real – is disturbing.  That despite the way that video games teach us to be virtual sadists (see: the whole Grand Theft Auto oeuvre) to virtual characters, down somewhere in our underbrains is the wiring that tells us that this is wrong.

Also of interest to me was what was said in the beginning of this experiment – about how people’s aberrated psychology starts manifesting almost immediately because of cues that come from a virtual world.  Which, if true, and as virtual reality becomes ever-more immersive, offers the possibility of treating mental illness through virtual psychotherapy … a concept familiar to the readers of the works of Tom Cool … or the Gem series by the visionary Fred Pohl…

Previous work has shown that people tend to respond realistically to
events within such environments and even to virtual humans in spite of
their relatively low fidelity compared to reality [10]. For example, virtual environments have been used in studies of social anxiety and behavioural problems [11], [12], and individuals with paranoid tendencies have been shown to experience paranoid thoughts in the company of virtual characters [13]–[15].
These provide specific examples of ‘presence’ – the tendency of
participants to respond to virtual events and situations as if they
were real

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