CAMLAW: Complementary and Alternative Medicine Law Blog

Repetition of Milgrom's experiments suggests empathy for virtual characters

I'm afraid we are losing the distinction between physical and virtual reality, just like Ray Kurzweil has prophesied (predicted).

The other day, I visited a friend. Her nine-year old was absorbed in her virtual tasks of caring for and feeding and walking a virtual dog; meanwhile, our two dogs romped around outside. The child was more immersed in her virtual dog-play than with the real live pets outside.

Now someone has repeated the Milgrom experiments, using real participants and virtual subjects. Milgrom, you may recall, tested participants by having them pull a lever which supposedly gave an electric shock to subjects. The experiment was designed to how far participants would go into the subjective experience of torturing others. (The given citation is: MilgramS., et al. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol., 67. 371 - 378 (1963)). Some of the participants delivered what would have been lethal shocks.

The Milgrom experiments have now been held to be unethical.

Reports Kerry Smith in Virtual reality shocker: Torturing even a lifeless computer character makes volunteers upset:

'Mel Slater, who works jointly at the Catalan Polytechnic University in Barcelona, Spain, and at University College London, UK, and his colleagues set up a virtual version of an infamous experiment on obedience to authority....

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.

Ramping up

Half the volunteers could see the woman and half could not, communicating with her only through text. Both were told to give her 'electric shocks' of increasing voltage when she gave incorrect answers to test questions. The woman responded to these with protests and discomfort, asking for the test to stop as the voltage was ramped up.

The group from whom the virtual woman was hidden delivered shocks up to the maximum voltage, like many of those in Milgram's experiment. Those who could see her were more likely to stop before reaching this limit.'

Slater, the experimenter, apparently concluded that the brain is tricked into perceiving virtual reality as physical reality--hence the empathy with the screams of the virtual woman.

An ethicist quoted in the article argues that the experiment should nonetheless be considered unethical, because it elicited the equivalent of torture from the volunteer participants.

That would certainly square with the yogic ideal of ahimsa (non-violence), although the experiment may be justified on utilitarian grounds, since it arguably could help "investigate why crowds of people stand by and watch an act of violence without intervening -- the so-called bystander effect."

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Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen offers general corporate legal services, litigation consultation, and expertise in health law with a unique focus on alternative, complementary, and integrative medical therapies.

Michael H. Cohen is Principal in Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen and also President of the Institute for Integrative and Energy Medicine (also known as the Institute for Health, Ethics, Law, Policy & Society), a reliable forum for exploration of legal, regulatory, ethical, and health policy issues involved in the judicious integration of complementary and alternative medical therapies (such as acupuncture and traditional oriental medicine, chiropractic, massage therapy, herbal medicine) and conventional clinical care. The most recent published book by Michael H. Cohen on health care law, regulation, ethics and policy pertaining to complementary, alternative and integrative medicine and related fields is Healing at the Borderland of Medicine and Religion. This is the fourth book in a series, following Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Legal Boundaries and Regulatory Perspectives (1998), Beyond Complementary Medicine: Legal and Ethical Perspectives on Health Care and Human Evolution (2000), and Future Medicine: Ethical Dilemmas, Regulatory Challenges, and Therapeutic Pathways to Health Care and Healing in Human Transformation (2003).
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