Over at Seed, Errol Morris and Marc Hauser discuss game theory, Stanley Milgram, and whether science can make us better people.
MH: Now take the Milgram experiments. About a year ago, there was a study done that replicated Milgram’s experiment. So you may think how is that possible? Aren’t those now deemed unethical?
Well they are but we can do them if they’re in virtual reality space. This group in London—led by Mel Slater—created the Milgram experiments in virtual reality. So you’re the subject and while you’re in the experiment, you’re hooked up to skin conductance gizmos, which look at the sweatiness of your palms and heart rate and track how revved up you’re getting.
MH: And what you find is that all of the factors that Milgram uncovered in his original experiment—how close you are to the individual, how much you’ve interacted with him before, how dominant the experimenter is in pushing you forward—all of those get mapped onto the physiological response of the subject in exactly the same way as they did in the original experiment. And they know it’s not real. It’s like, why do men look at Playboy or Penthouse? It’s just a magazine. But the mind goes on automatic pilot in some cases, blind to reality.
So the interesting thing is that, of course, people know they’re in a completely fake environment, it’s virtual reality. And yet there are parts of the brain that don’t get it. To use a term from cognitive science, there’s a sense of encapsulation or insularity, so even though I know this is a visual illusion, I don’t give a hoot.
EM: I don’t care.
MH: Right. And that says something very important about the moral domain because there are parts of the brain that are just going to see the world in a particular way independently of rich belief systems.