The Situationist

Archive for May 14th, 2009

Mass Marketing

Posted by Adam Benforado on May 14, 2009

A student in my Business Organizations course just sent me a link to an interesting four-part BBC series, “The Century of the Self,” that was made in 2002 and is likely to be of interest to Situationist readers, particularly in the wake of the recent economic troubles.  The set of films considers the emergence of a mass-consumer society in the U.S. and U.K. during the last century using the Freud dynasty as a focus for the investigation.  The first installment, “Happiness Machines,” explores the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his nephew, Edward Bernays, who invented the field of public relations.  As the film’s website summarizes, Bernays

showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.

Bernays was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts, to eroticising the motorcar.

His most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.

It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today’s world.

Although there are points and characterizations to contest in the first part of the series, the filmmakers present a provocative theory.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, History, Marketing | 2 Comments »

Virtual Milgram

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 14, 2009

virtual reality - FlickrFrom ICT Results:

Despite advances in computer graphics, few people would think virtual characters or objects are real. Yet placed in a virtual reality environment most people will interact with them as if they are really there. European researchers are finding out why.

In trying to understand presence – the propensity of humans to respond to fake stimuli as if they are real – the researchers are not just gaining insights into how the human brain functions. They are also learning how to create more intense and realistic virtual experiences, opening the door to myriad applications for healthcare, training, social research and entertainment.

“Virtual environments could be used by psychiatrists to help people overcome anxiety disorders and phobias . . . by researchers to study social behaviour not practically or ethically reproduced in the real world, or to create more immersive virtual reality for entertainment,” explains Mel Slater, a computer scientist at ICREA in Barcelona and University College, London, who led the team behind the research.

Working in the EU-funded Presenccia project, Slater and his team, drawn from fields as diverse as neuroscience, psychology, psychophysics, mechanical engineering and philosophy, conducted a variety of experiments to understand why humans interpret and respond to virtual stimuli the way they do and how those experiences can be made more intense.

For one experiment they developed a virtual bar, which test subjects enter by donning a virtual reality (VR) headset or immersing themselves in a VR CAVE in which stereo images are projected onto the walls. As the virtual patrons socialise, drink and dance, a fire breaks out. Sometimes the virtual characters ignore it, sometimes they flee in panic. That in turn dictates how the real test subjects, immersed in the virtual environment, respond.

Panic and pain . . . virtually

“We have had people literally run out of the VR room, even though they know that what they are witnessing is not real,” says Slater. “They take their cues from the other characters.”

In another instance, the researchers re-enacted controversial experiments conducted by American social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s that showed people’s propensity to follow orders even if they know what they are doing is wrong. Instead of using a real actor, as Milgram did, the Presenccia team used a virtual character to which the test subject was instructed to give progressively more intense electric shocks whenever it answered questions incorrectly. The howls of pain and protest from the character, a virtual woman, increased as the experiment went on.

“Some of the test subjects felt so uncomfortable that they actually stopped participating and left the VR environment. Around half said they wanted to leave, but said they did not because they kept telling themselves it wasn’t real,” Slater says.

All had physical reactions, measured by their skin conductivity, perspiration and heart rate, showing that, at a subconscious level, people’s responses are similar regardless of whether what they are experiencing is real or virtual. The plausibility of the events enhances the sense that what is happening is real. Plausibility, Slater says, is therefore more important to presence than the quality of the graphics in a VR environment.

For example, when a test subject was made to stand on the edge of a virtual pit, staring down at an 18-metre drop, their level of anxiety increased if they could see dynamically changing shadows and reflections of their virtual body even if the graphics were poor. In other experiments, the researchers made people believe that a virtual hand was their own – replicating in VR the so-called “rubber hand illusion” – or that they were looking at themselves from another angle, creating a kind of out-of-body experience. In one trial, they even gave male test subjects a woman’s body.

Help with phobias and paranoia

By understanding what makes people perceive virtual objects and experiences to be real, the researchers hope to create applications that could revolutionise certain psychiatric treatments. Patients with a fear of spiders or heights, for example, could be exposed to and helped to overcome their fears in virtual reality. Similarly people who are shy or paranoid about public speaking could be helped by having to face virtual people and crowds.

“One application we are working on is designed to help shy men overcome their fear of meeting women by making them interact with a virtual woman,” Slater says.

The technology is also being used for social research which, much like the Milgram experiments, would not be practical or ethical to conduct in the real world. One experiment due to be run at University College, London, will use a virtual environment to study how people respond to violence in public places, such as a bar fight between football hooligans.

Besides healthcare and research, more immersive VR would also help in training, potentially greatly improving the results of flight or driving simulators. Slater also envisions VR environments being used to train people to use prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs through mind control before trying them out in the real world. A brain-computer interface (BCI) developed for just such a purpose was tested in the Presenccia project and in a similarly named predecessor called Presencia, which received funding under the EU’s Sixth and Fifth Framework Programmes for research, respectively.

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Though immersive VR is likely to have many applications in healthcare, research and training, the biggest market is probably entertainment. With the cost of VR technology coming down, people could eventually be exploring virtual worlds and interacting with virtual characters and other people through VR rooms in their homes akin to the “holodecks” seen in Star Trek, Slater says.

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You can read the story and watch a related video at ICT Results, here.  To read some related Situationist posts, see “Virtual Worlds, Learning, and Virtual Milgram,” “The Positive Situation of Crowds,”Virtual Bias,” “Are Video Games Addictive?,” and “Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games.”

Posted in Classic Experiments, Illusions, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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