Virtual Reality Studies the Bystander Effect (and more???)

Ludovico Technique details.

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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.]


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4 Responses to Virtual Reality Studies the Bystander Effect (and more???)

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  3. George Dawson says:

    I found this sentence to be problematic: “The goal of this study is to develop this technique further to enable its use to treat racism and abuse.”

    While the goal is noble, I believe the premise is wrong. The urge to ‘treat’ human tendencies does not address the issue of misdirection of said human tendency. My premise is that the biological and social world we inhabit is the product of generational survival. And since I believe that mankind has been evolving for quite a long time, I see such human traits as prejudice towards unknown groups to be as natural as the disgusting human trait to murder and rape. All of these disgusting human traits have enabled human populations to survive to the current time, like them or not.

    The murderer is out to protect or achieve a better position. (Cain and Able) The rapist (or the “love” `em and leave `em types) successfully bear offspring, and so this unwanted trait continues through the generations. The abuser exists because it is through abuse that one subjugates another. Another human trait is to surrender to an abuser. And this has been a survival strategy for millennia, probably mostly employed by young women spared in mass murder events.

    Misquoting here “And God looked down on what He had created, and was brokenhearted, for the thoughts and deeds of men were evil.”

    And so it is. Still, it is my contention that to ‘treat’ the human condition is an hopeless task. What needs to be done is to separate the trait from the object obsessed upon, and then redirect the trait towards that which is healthy for the society at large. The one thing that these undesirable human tendencies have in common is selfishness. A sociopathic human tendency is considered socially wrong precisely because it does not promote the greater good. We could blame selfish genes, or we can find ways to convince a selfish entity that a socially acceptable act will serve a selfish need.

    The potential rapist needs to be convinced that marriage and raising a family will satisfy his selfish needs better that rape.
    Prejudiced people are often converted simply by meeting and socializing with the unknown others.
    And the murderer needs to see the value in all life, including his own.

    Well, that’s my take on treating human tendencies. Human nature can not be treated. But it can be directed away from evil.

    • You should write to the study authors. That is their goal and not mine. I had read problems with the entire concept behind their study- I was the one to make the allusion to “A Clockwork Orange” because the basis of the study is very troubling. Nor do I find the use of avatars any less non-ethical than the use of human beings in their “torture” study.

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