December 21, 2006 7:38 AM PST

Virtual world may revive outlawed experiments

Experiments ditched due to ethical concerns some 40 years ago could get a new lease of life online.

University College London (UCL) is looking at conducting--in a virtual world--psychological experiments that no longer take place in the real world.

The UCL-led study repeated, in a virtual environment, a classic experiment from the 1960s by social psychologist Stanley Milgram--which found people would administer apparently lethal electric shocks to a stranger at the command of an authority figure--and discovered that participants reacted as though the situation were real.

In a way similar to Milgram's earlier work, participants were immersed in a virtual environment and given a series of word association memory tests to a virtual female human. They were told to give her an "electric shock" when she gave an incorrect answer.

The voltage was increased with each shock and the virtual female responded with increasing discomfort and protests, eventually demanding the experiment to stop.

Of the 34 participants, 23 saw and heard a graphic representation of the virtual human and 11 communicated with her only through a text interface.

The participants communicating through text alone administered the maximum of 20 shocks. Of those who could see the avatar, 17 gave 20 shocks, three gave 19 shocks. Three people gave fewer shocks.

Measurements of physiological indicators, including heart rate and heart rate variability, indicated participants reacted as though the situation were real.

Study leader Mel Slater, a professor in UCL's department of computer science, said the experiment opens the door to the use of virtual environments to study situations that--whether for practical or ethical reasons--are otherwise impossible to monitor. These might include violence associated with sporting events, racial attacks or gang attacks on individuals.

Gemma Simpson of Silicon.com reported from London.

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