Press release: Cyberspace may overcome ethical constraints in experiments

21 December 2006

Psychological experiments that stopped 40 years ago because of ethical concerns could instead be conducted in cyberspace in the future.

By repeating the Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment from the 1960s on obedience to authority – that found people would administer apparently lethal electrical shocks to a stranger at the behest of an authority figure – in a virtual environment, the UCL led study demonstrated for the first time that participants reacted as though the situation was real.

The finding, which is reported in the inaugural edition of the journal PLoS ONE, demonstrates that virtual environments can provide an alternative way of pursuing laboratory-based experimental research that examines extreme social situations.

Professor Mel Slater, of UCL Computer Science, who led the study, says: “The line of research opened up by Milgram was of tremendous importance in the understanding of human behaviour. It has been argued before that immersive virtual environment can provide a useful tool for social psychological studies in general and our results show that this applies even in the extreme social situation investigated by Stanley Milgram.”

Read the full press release.