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Dr Megan Birney

A new study, challenging the traditional understanding of why people obey orders, has been produced by an international collaboration between psychologists and computer scientists, including an academic from University Centre Shrewsbury (UCS).

The work has just been published in the journal PLOS ONE. The team included academics from the University of St Andrews, University of Barcelona, University of Queensland and University College London.

Classic ‘obedience’ studies of the 1960s and 1970s, conducted by the American academic, Dr Stanley Milgram, 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 (but has since joined 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 program 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, a Social Psychologist at UCS, helped design the studies. She 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.”

Megan is a Senior Lecturer on the Applied Psychology BSc course at UCS. In addition to her work on obedience, Megan also looks at the role that accents play in the relationship between immigrants and host country natives in the UK. She uses her research to inform her teaching and is the Module Leader for three modules at UCS, including Introduction to Self and Society, Exploring Psychology in Society and Applications of Psychology in the Business in the Workplace.

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