All Hail Our Robot Overlords: Obedience to Digital Authority

As computers have advanced, so has their ability to instruct and inform their users. The current study examines computers' influence in an obedience paradigm. Participants (N = 305), under the pretext of calibrating a motion capture device, were instructed to carry out a series of actions that were initially simple (e.g., clapping) but become increasingly complex and repetitious (i.e. make the time 6:38AM with your body). The "experimenter" giving these instructions was a human (via intercom), a standard computer (using low end text-to-speech software), or a sophisticated computer (a recording of a human reading the instructions as a computer). As in extant research on obedience, subjects were able to terminate the task at any time; the number of actions performed was the key dependent variable. I found no significant differences between any of the conditions, with the level of perceived sophistication not affecting the outcome of obedience. These results suggest that in a novel situation with little information about the capability or trustworthiness of the instructor, humans and computers may hold comparable levels of authority.