We all knew virtual reality was coming, it’s been imagined for decades on TV and in film. There are first-person shooters in arcades that are a sort of virtual reality. But now an experiment at Barcelona University is using VR as an experiment in sociology and human empathy.
The idea behind the test is to get people to see the life experiences of others from a first-person point of view to elicit a reaction from them. The subjects of the tests were all men, and when they put on the VR glasses, they witnessed a series of events from the point of view of a young girl.
Then, in the middle of the experiment, they get a little shock.
The volunteer is shown a view hovering above the scene instead of acting as the girl. The previously affectionate woman inexplicably lashes out, slapping the girl twice on the face.
The idea is that having previously been the girl, the volunteer feels the shock of what has happened more personally.
The idea is to make people more understanding of racism and abuse in contemporary society. Mel Slater, one of the project’s researchers (and not a relative of JetBlue flight attendant and hero/idiot Steven Slater), told the BBC that they hope people subjecting themselves to these tests “understand what it is like to experience abuse in different ways.”
A similar experiment is being conducted over in England, but its similarities to a controversial test from the 60s are making a few people uneasy.
Back in 1961, a top Nazi offical was on trial in Jerusalem for war crimes. Yale Professor of Psychology Stanley Milgram was interested in how so many Nazi soldiers could have inflicted so much pain on human beings without losing some inner sense of morality.
Milgram organized a test in which people were put in the position of inflicting pain upon complete strangers. What Milgram did not tell them was that the subjects were really actors and that they were not really undergoing pain at all. The “teacher” would be required to give the subject, the “learner,” an electric shock every time they answered a question incorrectly. For each successive wrong answer, the shock levels would be increased. The actors were trained to increase the level of their suffering as the supposed shock got more powerful.
When the teachers felt uneasy about continuing, they were pressured to keep shocking to ensure the experiment would work. A lot of the teachers just refused outright to go any further when they felt the pain was too much for the subject to handle.
To his surprise, Milgram found that 65% of the teachers were willing to go to the maximum shock level, even if they personally felt it was wrong. He believed that people’s sense of obedience to authority figures overrode their personal morals, and that they believe by following the orders of others, they are not responsible for what arises as a result of their servile actions.
His experiment was attacked for questionable ethics and he was accused of putting undue emotional stress on the participants, but most of the people who were involved said they were happy to participate.
Now that experiment is being duplicated with a slight twist: the people being tortured aren’t real.
The subjects in this test wore virtual reality helmets and were instructed to give electric shocks to the VR person in the room with them. Even though the person wasn’t real, the researchers noticed the emotional reactions of many subjects. They concluded that while their responses were not nearly as gut-wrenching as those in the 60s who believed they were torturing real people, they clearly had a visceral reaction to their own actions.
The results of these studies might seem surprising to some, given the popular idea that technology has desensitized us to violence. For years, parents’ groups have argued that violent video games can drive children to a life of violence. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that the experiments did not feature any young people.
Does this mean experiments like these in the future will give us very different results? Probably. Especially if we’re on Grand Theft Auto 16 by then.