Do you remember Anthony Burgess’ novel, “A Clockwork Orange”? The novel describes an aversion therapy process- the “Ludovico” technique. The protagonist, Alex (actually an anti-hero), is promised a release from punishment for his crimes if he undergoes this process for two weeks. The Ludovico therapy involved administering an emetic to Alex, while he was strapped into a chair watching graphically violent films.
[Mel Slater is a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies, the Barcelona University and the University College in London. He and his groups have been conducting virtual reality experiments for a few years, in particular to understand the “bystander-effect, where people stand by, watch a violent act, and do nothing. In his virtual reality (VR) studies, the volunteers don a VR headset (with stereo headphones); this then lets them experience the scenes of interest to the researchers.]
The Barcelona experiments are the ones reminiscent of the Ludovico technique. This study involved 24 male volunteers who experience life (virtually) as a young girl. The VR scene had a two-minute baseline; after that the subjects were transported to the opposite side of the room, where there were two female characters; a seated girl and a standing woman. Among the repeated experiences, the volunteers became the young girl (the virtual self) who was subjected to non-sexual caresses from the older woman. On subsequent occasions, the virtual self was slapped by the woman. The test proved that the men empathized with their virtual self, feeling insecure and scared. The goal of this study is to develop this technique further to enable its use to treat racism and abuse. What surprised me is that the studied technique seems to work even if the virtual reality world is fairly rudimentary. (The male volunteers had donned a VR headset; when they examined themselves they saw the little girl’s body and clothes.)
Slater, at the University College in London, with a different group has been “virtually” repeating Stanley Milgram’s experiments. In the publication “Behavioral study of Obedience”(1963), he reported how people responded to authority. This study proved to be highly controversial; it involved volunteers who repeatedly shocked other people, when ordered to do so by an authority figure. (Milgram’s “saving grace” was that the people being tortured were only simulating their pain and not being tortured.) In this virtual study, a volunteer provides shocks to a virtual subject. The volunteer knows the subject is virtual (hence, the belief that the study is ethical). The results demonstrated that the volunteers (those providing the torture) were anxious (as measured by psychological metrics), but not to the degree found with Milgram’s experiments. [It should be noted that half the volunteers withdrew from the project, stating they were uncomfortable with the concept.]