Do avatars dream of electric torture?

There’s a little corner of the Internet which I stumbled across several weeks ago, a personal blog in which a young writer, her educational background in biopsychology, recently dissected an expansive and bizarre post-modern Milgram-esque experiment which occurred at fast-food chain restaurants throughout the United States during the span of 2000 through 2004, at which time a suspect was arrested, and the hoaxes ceased. The story, as reported originally in the Louisville KY Courier-Journal, A hoax most cruel in October 2005, outlines the history and consequences of a series of abuse by an anonymous caller, posing as a police officer, who persuaded assistant managers at fast food chain restaurants to perform strip searches and lewd acts on young, vulnerable employees who the faux-officer said were crime suspects.

Some examples from the Courier-Journal article:

On May 29, 2002, a girl celebrating her 18th birthday — in her first hour of her first day on the job at the McDonald’s in Roosevelt, Iowa — was forced to strip, jog naked and assume a series of embarrassing poses, all at the direction of a caller on the phone, according to court and news accounts.

On Jan. 26, 2003, according a police report in Davenport, Iowa, an assistant manager at an Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar conducted a degrading 90-minute search of a waitress at the behest of a caller who said he was a regional manager — even though the man had called collect, and despite the fact the assistant manager had read a company memo warning about hoax calls just a month earlier. He later told police he’d forgotten about the memo.

On June 3, 2003, according to a city police spokesman in Juneau, Alaska, a caller to a Taco Bell there said he was working with the company to investigate drug abuse at the store, and had a manager pick out a 14-year-old customer — and then strip her and force her to perform lewd acts.

As the Courier-Journal article unfolds, the reader is astounded by how blitherf*ckedly stupid the assistant managers were with their obeisance. Is this an act of coercion and the human tendency to want to obey? Were the managers victims, too? The perp picked his targets perfectly: uneducated individuals who blindly obeyed orders, and naive teenagers who had not a hint of skepticism, of questioning in them.
But wait a minute. It’s easy enough for me to look down my overeducated schnozz at these less than intellectually stellar folks with the skeptical skills of a Platyhelminthes, but Milgram’s thesis continues to play out in controlled venues. As Jonah Lehrer of the Frontal Cortex reports in Repeating the Milgram Experiment, but with kinder, gentler “shocks,” Primetime Live ably demonstrated that people are still willing to listen to an authority figure, in this case a scientist in a lab coat. We bench monkeys wield such power! Who knew? Anyway, the majority of subjects were willing to inflict pain on their fellow humans at the “scientist’s” orders.
An extension of Milgram’s experiments, and arguably a more ethical approach, uses a virtual version: A Virtual Shocker. as designed by Mel Slater et al. from the Catalan Polytechnic University in Barcelona, Spain, and University College London, UK.

Slater’s volunteers did a similar experiment, but in an immersive virtual environment where they interacted with a virtual woman. This counters some of the ethical protests that have prevented Milgram’s experiment from being repeated because the volunteers knew they would be interacting with a virtual woman and so, unlike Milgram’s guinea-pigs, knew that nobody was being hurt.

Those who could see the virtual woman stopped the experiment before the limit of voltage was reached, whereas when she was hidden, “faceless,” maximum voltage was delivered. What is particularly interesting is that although all the volunteers knew this was a virtual experiment, a number stated afterwards that they considered withdrawing from the study, and based on measurements which are difficult to fake, it became apparent that some part of the subjects’ brains continued to perceive this as real:

And instead of becoming accustomed to the virtual person and ceasing to empathise, many volunteers became more anxious as the study continued. Measures of stress, such as heart rate and sweatiness of palms, increased. These measures are nearly impossible to fake, and confirmed for Slater that the volunteers were actually feeling uncomfortable, rather than performing as they thought the experimenter would expect.

Slater believes the virtual world has potential to study the bystander effect, that is, when others do nothing as they witness an act of violence perpetrated on another and do nothing. Although the ethical considerations of the subjects cannot be dismissed, Slater believes the ability to measure automatic responses to anxiety will prove useful.
It’s a chilling subject, and I’d like to think I can “just say ‘no,'” but the need to obey is hardwired into our brains as children as an evolutionary survival mechanism. Does obedience, playing the “good soldier,” linger in adults, expressing itself as a manifestation of atavistic behavior? Please excuse while I shock the virtual monkey and find out.

6 thoughts on “Do avatars dream of electric torture?”

  1. Those who could see the virtual woman stopped the experiment before the limit of voltage was reached, whereas when she was hidden, “faceless,” maximum voltage was delivered.

    This explains much about online discourse.

  2. Does obedience, playing the “good soldier,” linger in adults, expressing itself as a manifestation of atavistic behavior?

    Assume it does not, then try to explain war.

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