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New study changes the way we understand the psychology of obedience

A new study just published in the journal PLoS One – involving a landmark international collaboration between psychologists and computer scientists at the University of St Andrews, University of Barcelona, University of Queensland and University College London – challenges the traditional understanding of why people obey orders.

Milgram’s classic ‘obedience’ studies show that people will obey instructions from an experimenter to inflict electric shocks on a ‘learner’ when he makes errors on a memory task. Milgram argues that this is because they are so focussed on doing what is asked of them that they are hardly aware of the consequences of their actions.

But the new study, using a virtual reality replication of the originals, shows that people are well aware of the learner and that they actively seek to help him avoid shocks by emphasising the correct answers to the memory task. Nonetheless, if errors are still made, they continue to obey instructions to the extent that – as other work by the research team has shown – they ultimately consider the benefits of the research to outweigh the suffering of the victim.

Professor Stephen Reicher, of the School of Psychology at St Andrews, said: “It’s not that people harm others because they aren’t aware or don’t care. In some ways, the reality is even more disturbing: we can harm others despite caring about them because we think it is justified in furtherance of a worthier cause.”

Dr Megan Birney, who helped design the studies at St Andrews and has since moved to the University of Chester at University Centre Shrewsbury, added: “It’s the old argument about serving ‘the greater good’ – a truly toxic idea.”

Dr Mar Gonzalez-Franco, now of Microsoft Research – who conducted the research in the University College London Virtual Reality ‘Cave’ – explained the importance of the work from a computer science perspective. She said: “This work is an example of how virtual reality helps us to understand difficult and important topics that otherwise would be very hard to research in an ethical way.”

Professor Mel Slater of the University of Barcelona said: “The study is part of our wider programme of work showing that, even though people know they are in a virtual reality simulation, they tend to behave much as they would in similar circumstances in reality. Hence VR offers huge opportunities for psychological and other social science research.”

Dr Megan Birney, currently a social psychologist at the University of Chester at University Centre Shrewsbury, said: “For many years, people had doubts about Milgram’s claim that people obey the most harmful instructions simply because they don’t attend to the consequences of their actions, but it was hard to do studies to refute it. This virtual reality study, part of a larger Economic and Social Research Council project on obedience, finally allows us to lay this argument to rest.”


Participant concerns for the Learner in a Virtual Reality replication of the Milgram obedience study’ is published in PLoS One on 31 December 2018 and available online.

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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