Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reality - How screens seem to change it for us

Evolution has not prepared us for using technology to communicate. So it is no surprise that we say and do things using technology that we would never do face to face. How bad could that be? A lot worse than you might think, maybe even bad enough to make us hurt or kill.

I’m not talking about computer games where we spend endless hours slaughtering people shaped pixels.   What I am really talking about is the way interacting with the world through technology helps or allows us to do things we would otherwise never do. Like ‘kill’

Taking another life is against most peoples core values. Even soldiers faced with the prospect of going into battle for the first time are as worried about killing as being killed. As one World War 2 soldier put it: “Here I am brought up a good Christian, obey this and do that. The ten commandments say ‘Thou shalt not kill’…”

Killing is an extreme and rare event, not something that is easy to study. But there was one experiment that looked at how far people would go to obey orders.

The Milgram paradox, or why machines may make us killers

Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments, which involved people, who thought they were working as ‘teacher’s’ using a machine which they believed was administering electric shocks to a ‘learner’ in another room–to improve the learners memory. As the experiment progressed the ‘teacher’ is instructed to increase the level of the shocks, up to fatal levels, by an ‘authority figure’. You can get a flavour of the experiment in this, at times uncomfortable to watch, YouTube video of a BBC re-creation of the experiment.

The paradox is in the results.

With the authority figure in the room, and the ‘learner’ in a different room about two thirds of Europeans and Americans will continue pressing switches on the machine up to what they believe is a fatal level. They will act even though they feel uncomfortable, and that what they are doing is against their values.

The aim of the Milgram experiment was to determine peoples level of obedience to authority. So where is the paradox?

Compare the two thirds of Milgram subjects willing to administer fatal electric shocks with the experience of soldiers in combat for the first time.

Here is a summary of Colonel Jim Channon’s account of leading fresh troops in Vietnam. Advancing, past the bodies of other American soldiers who had been killed days before, his troops came under fire. After about twenty seconds he thought ‘Why is nobody shooting?’ Channon ordered his men to fire, they all missed. If Milgram is only telling us something about obedience to authority then two out of three of the soldiers should have been shooting to kill.

Yet Channon’s experience mirrored research from World War 2 which suggests that four out of five troops in combat avoid shooting to kill. Soldiers are subject to strict conditioning to prepare them to obey orders in combat situations. They are acting under the direct command of a significant authority figure, the are in among friends, fellow soldiers, whom they expect to follow orders, yet the majority obey their instinct not to kill.

That is the paradox. Using Milgram’s machine two out of three men seem prepared to kill. Yet using gun’s in combat only one in five men is prepared to kill.

Either a majority of people are obedient to authority to the point of taking another life or something else is going on. Where we get two different sets of results we have to look at the situations. In both cases people were responding to a direct instruction from an authority figure. In the Milgram experiment the subjects were not looking at the person they might kill, while Channon’s soldiers had to look directly at their enemy, in order to aim.

Competing Realities

While there are other interpretations about the level of obedience to authority involved in the Milgram experiment I wonder to what extent the results are influenced by the competing ‘realities’ involved. In other words if, in part, the outcome could be weighted by the ‘authority figure’ in the room being more real for the ‘teacher’ than the learner who is only contacted using technology.

I am not suggesting that the ‘teacher’ is not influenced by what they perceive of the ‘learner’ as a person. Simply that we are not equipped, as humans, to make judgments based on remote contact with another person. So because the ‘authority figure’ in the room is part of the same environment and providing much more sensory input–seen and heard directly with the eyes and ears–the ‘teacher’ takes more account of them.

One way to test  if this intuition is true or not is to look at how results of variations of the Milgram experiment change if the proximity between the ‘authority figure’ or ‘learner’ and teacher is changed. Indeed these show that lower proximity to the ‘authority figure’ reduce compliance, as does closer proximity to the ‘learner’.  That could be seen as indicating that the technology, the ‘apparatus’ itself was a significant factor in the reasons ‘teachers’ were more likely to 'kill'.

Us and them

Many of us have had the experience of looking back an e-mail we have sent and been a little shocked at how we expressed ourselves. Or maybe you have received a text or e-mail that caused an argument with a friend.

We know that what, and how, we communicate using technology is different from how we communicate face to face. Why do we say things differently–and say different things–using e-mail and text messages than in a conversation. One of the big differences is in how we make judgements about other people.

There is a wealth of research to explain the de-personalisation and dis-inhibiting effects of using technology to communicate. Using a phone or computer we miss all of the subtle interaction with the people we are communicating with. Because we are missing all the little clues that help us understand people we fall back on using stereotypes, simple pictures of our world and the  people in it.

We can experience other peoples thoughts, expressed online, almost as if we are talking to ourselves. If we reply in as if we are talking to ourselves we may be much more open than in normal conversation.  On the one hand this may lead to a strong sense of bonding, if the conversation is positive. On the other hand if we don't like what we hear, and the communication method lacks the instant feedback and correction we use to smooth day to day conflicts, it can feel like emotional hit and run.

In an online group situation just a little positive feedback helps us feel the other people in the group are like us. And, without all those subtle clues to personality,  we are more likely to go along with the groups opinions.

Using technology we often, for the flimsiest reasons, assume that either the person we are ‘talking’ to has the same values as we do, is one of us: Or we picture them as an outsider, the other, one of them.  We are more willing to go along with the people who we think of as ‘us’ and more willing to go against ‘them’.

Behaving in a changed world 

The import point to understand is that we think and act differently when faced with a screen rather than a person.

This should not be a surprise. We have only had a generation or two to get used to remote communication.. We may try to develop etiquette for it, but we have not had time to understand how the technology makes us think differently about the people we are communicating with.

Looking at the Milgram experiment with fresh eyes gives just a glimpse of how great those changes might be. Our tools change how we see and shape the World.

I would hesitate to go so far as to say that our screens–our phones, our gadgets–might make us more likely to hurt or even kill someone. But then again research shows one in five young people have received messages threatening violence, one in twenty has gotten a message encouraging them to harm themselves.

Hiding behind a camera could just get you killed, but the screen could just make you a killer.


Milgram, Stanley ‘Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View’ HarperCollins, 1974

Ambrose, Stephen E.  ‘The Victors’ Simon & Schuster, 2004

Ronson, Jim ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ 2004 Picador.

Online Disinhibition Effect
John M. Grohol,

A new perspective on de-individuation via computer-mediated communication
Russell Haines and Joan Ellen Cheney Mann

CyberPsychology & Behavior. June 2004, 7(3): 321-326. 
John Suler.

Associated Press-MTV  Digital Abuse Survey August 2011
Knowledge Networks

Teen Online & Wireless Safety Survey, May 2009
Cox Communications


  1. nice article... we have ever increasing means of communicating but we are getting worse at it... even our primary (biological) means of communication suffer as a result of technology. we seem to have less empathy towards others and our plans are no longer set in stone. "my word is my bond" no longer applies. imagine if, before mobile phones became ubiquitous, you were on a foreign holiday and met someone on a night out who you wanted to meet again. you would organise a meeting the following day at a certain place at a certain time. if the meeting took place, it formed an initial bond. if it didn't, you knew where you stood :D.

    i think the song "We Used To Wait" by Arcade Fire is about this very topic...

    I used to write,
    I used to write letters I used to sign my name
    I used to sleep at night
    Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain

    But by the time we met
    By the time we met the times had already changed

    So I never wrote a letter
    I never took my true heart I never wrote it down
    So when the lights cut out
    I was left standing in the wilderness downtown

    Now our lives are changing fast
    Now our lives are changing fast
    Hope that something pure can last
    Hope that something pure can last

    It seems strange
    How we used to wait for letters to arrive
    But what's stranger still
    Is how something so small can keep you alive

    We used to wait
    We used to waste hours just walking around
    We used to wait
    All those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown

    oooo we used to wait
    oooo we used to wait
    oooo we used to wait
    Sometimes it never came
    Sometimes it never came
    Still moving through the pain

    I'm gonna write a letter to my true love
    I'm gonna sign my name
    Like a patient on a table
    I wanna walk again gonna move through the pain

    Now our lives are changing fast
    Now our lives are changing fast
    Hope that something pure can last
    Hope that something pure can last

    oooo we used to wait
    oooo we used to wait
    oooo we used to wait
    Sometimes it never came
    Sometimes it never came
    Still moving through the pain

    we used to wait

    We used to wait for it
    We used to wait for it
    Now we're screaming sing the chorus again
    We used to wait for it
    We used to wait for it
    Now we're screaming sing the chorus again

    I used to wait for it
    I used to wait for it
    Hear my voice screaming sing the chorus again

  2. Good point - the world has changed, we have to adapt to the changes.

    Maybe though, it is not that we are any worse at communicating - just using ways of communicating that do not fully express what we mean.

    That does not mean we are worse off using technology. If it did not bring great benefits we would not use it. After all now we can keep in touch with the person we met on holiday, no matter where they live. Or we can contact people from different parts of the world without travelling at all.

    Once we understand the limits, and try to keep in touch with the reality of the situations we are in, then our lives can be better for using technology.

  3. The power of the present.

    In describing her stroke (http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html) Jill Bolte Taylor gives, for me, a new level of insight into the actual experience of left-right brain activity.

    If the main function of half our brain is to process data from right now – to be in the present with all of our senses – it seems logical that we are much more powerfully influenced by the reality we are physically part of. So it also makes sense that we will be less influenced by information from a reality we are not physically part of – like another room where an experiment is taking place.

    Maybe her story can help science explain how and why we sometimes act differently when we use technology.