In March 2015 we published a new paper in PLoS ONE about Immersive Digital Realism (IDR) — a screen performance methodology devised by film scholar and award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Millard. Kathryn drew on her method to restage versions of Stanley Milgram's 'Obedience to Authority' (OtA) paradigm for her forthcoming feature documentary Shock Room. We advised her on aspects of psychology and collected data related to the psychology of the paradigm. We were also interviewed for the film and described new interpretations of the OtA paradigm based on our previous research on the subject.
IDR involved Kathryn collaborating with professional actors to develop composite fictional characters who were then immersed in a novel environment — in this case as participants in the OtA scenario. Details of the dramatic context were withheld so that the actors were briefed to perform as participants but not given any more specific information about the scenario. The resulting dramatisations were then used in Shock Room which combines interviews, animation and archival footage to reinterpret Milgram’s paradigm.
We found Millard’s IDR approach immensely interesting. In our view, it is also likely to have significant future applications for psychology — in particular, in enabling experiments that are ethically challenging to be re-staged and re-interpreted.
The project, which was funded by a grant from the Creative Arts and Humanities panel of the Australian Research Council and led by Millard, was a unique exploration of the interface between film and psychology. It investigated issues specific to both disciplines, but also sought to use the methods of each to enrich the other (e.g., in ways discussed by Millard, 2014).
As psychologists, the key questions that we explore in the PLoS ONE paper are (1) whether the IDR method is able to capture the same behaviour as Milgram’s studies, and (2) whether we can use the method to help understand why people do (and do not) comply with the instructions of Milgram's Experimenter. On the basis of the evidence we present, we conclude that the answer to both questions is "Yes".
Speaking to the first of these issues, we found (a) that all participants were willing to administer shocks greater than 150 volts, (b) there was near-universal refusal to continue after being told by the Experimenter that “you have no other choice, you must continue” (Milgram’s fourth prod and the one most resembling an order; see Haslam, Reicher & Birney, 2014), and (c) a strong correlation between the maximum level of shock that participants administered and the mean maximum shock delivered in the corresponding variant in Milgram’s own research.
Speaking to the second issue, we also found that relative identification with the Experimenter (vs. the Learner) was a good predictor of the maximum shock that participants administered (e.g., as observed by Reicher, Haslam & Smith, 2013). This is consistent with the 'engaged followership' account of obedience, which argues that people do not blindly follow orders but rather do so on the basis of their identification with those in authority and an associated belief in the cause that they are being asked to advance (e.g., see Haslam & Reicher, 2012).
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