Mel Slater's Presence Blog

Thoughts about research and radical new applications of virtual reality - a place to write freely without the constraints of academic publishing,and have some fun.

28 December, 2006

Obedience in Plaça Espanya

I was at home in Barcelona - 20th December 2006 turned out to be an interesting day. At about 2pm PST we had a paper published in the new PLoS ONE journal, which recreated aspects of the experiments carried out in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram, on obedience to authority. The day before University College London had issued a press release, with an embargo of 2pm PST, as required by the journal. I was contacted on the afternoon of 19th by the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, to talk about this paper at 8.30 am (UK time) on 20th.

On 20th I was told by the Today producer that Prof. Alex Haslam of University of Exeter and myself would be interviewed by John Humphreys. The interview seemed to go well, but the BBC insisted on using Skype, and the sound quality on that occasion was not too good, John Humphrey’s even saying “You sound like you’re talking from a virtual world!”.

I received many emails that morning from the press, but I couldn’t attend to them immediately, since I was taking a flight.

We live near Plaça Espanya, and there is a short walk from home to the stop for the airport bus. I was walking towards the bus stop and suddenly an oldish man, a bit pathetic looking, came to me waiving a map. He asked me how to get to Sagrada Familia. I started to explain a bit in Spanish, a bit in English, but he looked confused. Suddenly two other men appeared out of nowhere. They were not well dressed, unshaven, seedy looking. They said that they were police, and that they were following this man who had been talking with me, because he was selling heroin. They asked to see my passport. Many thoughts rushed through my head: I was relaxed since I had done nothing, and could prove everything about who I am and where I was going. They were dressed in that seedy way because they were undercover. I will show them my passport, and quickly be on the way to the bus stop.

I showed them the passport, and also the other guy showed them some scrappy paper for his documentation. They returned my passport, and they asked to see my wallet. They had a quick look, and seemed disappointed. They gave it back to me and asked to see my money, since they said they believed I was buying heroin. I had only 5 euros in my pocket and they saw that and looked disappointed again. They kept asking me whether I had any more money, and suddenly I noticed that the original man who had approached me was no longer there. Where is he? I thought he was the one selling drugs, but the police didn’t seem interested in him. Wait a minute! “Show me your ID!” I shouted at them. This confused them. One of them started to reach into his pocket, but didn’t complete the move. The other one eventually pulled out a stupid looking card inside a transparent wallet. “Hmm, it doesn’t look too realistic” I said. “If you don’t believe we’re police we can take you down to the station.” OK, I thought, and why are they speaking with East European accents?

This is called a ‘break in presence’ – a moment when the illusion provided by the virtual reality breaks down, and you find yourself where you really are – in the case of virtual reality you would be standing in a computer science lab, wearing a head-mounted display or some other display and tracking devices. OK, in this case, it wasn’t a virtual reality, but a small drama, like being suddenly in a play. The dramatic reality attempted by these three men suddenly vanished, and there I was in Plaça Espanya, with two seedy-looking men conning me, for what exact purpose I wasn’t sure.

I walked away rapidly, shouting “This is a setup!”. The look on their faces said “You got us!”. I wondered about phoning the police, or trying to find a real policeman. At the airport bus stop there happened to be two motorbike police. I told one of them what had happened, and he was most concerned to know if I still had my passport (which I did). He said he would go to find them, but they had been on the other side of the plaza, and by now must have escaped.

So on the very day our paper that described a reproduction of aspects of the obedience experiment in virtual reality was published, there I was having my own experience of obedience in a dramatic reality. So what happened? Why did I obey, and show these people my passport and wallet? What lessons can we learn about ‘presence’?

Well there was a smooth transition from ‘reality’ to this drama. I was doing something entirely natural – walking along in the street. A man asks me directions, he is speaking to me in a broken English. The two other men appear with a plausible story. The fact that the first one had spoken to me in English somehow I didn’t notice that these two supposed undercover police were also talking in English. Because of the whole situation, I didn’t notice that their accent was not Spanish. There are small transitions, small changes that go from normal physical reality to this dramatic reality so that the two coexist. Then there is a contradiction – if the first guy was a heroin seller, and these are police, why have they let him disappear from the scene? Why are they more interested in me than him? Then the whole illusion falls away at once – I notice their clothes and other aspects of their appearance that just doesn’t fit with the story, and also I notice now their accents. The illusion is completely stripped away, and you see the other (every day) reality shining through. So the transition from real to ‘virtual’ is gradual (until the contradiction that breaks presence in this dramatic reality).

Why obey? During the moments that the story was believable, the overriding thought is that being innocent if I cooperated I would quickly be on my way. The very fact that this idea was inconsistent with the unfolding events (they kept asking me questions even though I was obviously cooperating and obviously innocent) was a contributory factor in breaking the illusion and making me suspicious. Of course, it was a different situation from the Milgram experiment – there subjects were asked to carry out an act that would harm another person, against the wishes of that other person, and against their own inclinations. Here it was a question of obeying what appeared to be a legitimate authority (for a few seconds) and also an underlying implied threat of force should I choose not to obey. But still I showed my wallet to those people!

There are after effects to these kinds of incidents. One is a (very) mild ‘post traumatic stress’, which is mentally going over the incident again and again, repeatedly asking: Why did I show my wallet to those people? and also feeling some anger. Also the incident has another effect, a blurring between real police and these ‘actor’ police – a mild fear that the police are now somehow a threat to me. This dramatic reality, only lasting a few seconds, is very powerful: as we said in the paper about the Milgram experiment – even though nothing real happened, there is part of me still responding as if it had been real.