Ethical issues to do with psychological experimentation may be avoided by conducting experiments in a virtual environment, claims a study by psychologists at the University College London (UCL). The finding opens doors to further research into human behaviour under extreme social situations.
The study, led by Professor Mel Slater of the UCL Department of Computer Science, revisited Stanley Milgram's infamous 1960s psychological experiment on obedience to authority, that found that participants would knowingly harm a stranger at the behest of an authority figure.
Milgram's experiment has been criticized for the extreme emotional stress it put on participants as they were led to believe that they were harming a real person. Participants were treated very firmly, even to the extent of being told that they had no choice but to go on with the experiment.
Slater expects to overcome these issues with the use of a cartoonish humanoid victim, which has been programmed with movements and facial expressions.
In Slater's study, participants were instructed to harm the virtual human while being fully aware that the situation was only a simulation, and that they could withdraw from the study at any time without giving reasons.
Surprisingly, Slater's human subjects responded to the virtual situation with physiological responses that indicated that they were treating the situation as real. Furthermore, Slater expects that experiments conducted in virtual environments might more closely model human behaviour than real-world laboratory experiments.
"The fact that they still had some feelings and physiological symptoms as if it were real makes it [the simulation] a valuable tool for study," he said. "In virtual reality we get closer to people's actual behaviour as it might be in reality, than simply by asking them how they think that they would behave."
Similar to how people empathise with on-screen characters in movies, Slater's virtual world was able to fool the human brain experiencing some of the same sensations, thoughts, responses, feelings, as they would in a similar situation in reality.
This is due to what scientists call the phenomenon of "presence", he explained, which is useful in psychotherapy to help people with phobias, in emergency situation training and as a distracter in normally uncomfortable situations.
The virtual reality need not be realistic for the phenomenon of presence to occur, Slater said. In fact, should virtual reality become so real that it is indistinguishable from reality, ethical issues may indeed rise again.
"It is the very gap between reality and virtual reality that makes this study both possible and potentially valuable," he said.