If the last two seasons of Westworld taught us anything, it’s that the way people interact with computers shows a lot about humanity’s dark side. Now, research published in the journal Aggressive Behavior is expanding upon these fictional thought experiments. The study, published yesterday, uses a digital date simulation, complete with with Ford-esque “female agents” to illuminate the dark psychology of alcohol-fueled sexual aggression.
Sexual assault, particularly on college campuses, has been the focus of several notable lawsuits over the past several years. One common ingredient in an estimated half of these cases is alcohol, which has been examined thoroughly in previous survey-based studies by study co-author and social psychologist Antonia Abbey, Ph.D., of Wayne State University. But there’s something about this study that differentiates it from the rest: It measured how alcohol leads to sexual aggression by creating a live interaction between a man and a computer-based “female agent,” who was “programmed to engage in some sexual activities and refuse others.”
As Westworld’s simulations might predict, the results were pretty horrific.
“This study addresses a gap in the existing research by assessing outcomes throughout the task, allowing men to continuously make decisions about how to interact with a woman, when to initiate sexual activity, and how to respond to the woman’s sexual refusals,” the authors write.
Things very quickly started to look like a low-tech version of Westworld’s Mariposa Saloon. The study authors designed a series of dates in which the 62 male participants in their study “selected a female agent they wanted to date and viewed the situation from a first-person perspective on a high definition computer screen.” Half of the men were randomly assigned to an “alcohol” condition and given the standard mixed drink of choice for alcohol research: a 3:1 ratio of 80-proof vodka mixed with diet lemon-lime soda.
Once the men had blood alcohol levels of .08, they were allowed to go on four “dates” with their female agent of choice. During their date, they could choose from a list of activities — some examples the authors give include talking, kissing, and vaginal sex — and were encouraged to talk to their female agents throughout the process. From this point on, things got extremely uncomfortable and dystopian.
While the “female agent” would engage in kissing and “lower level” sexual activities like back massages, she was programmed to refuse both oral and vaginal sex. The female simulation would refuse more aggressively each time, until she eventually “pushed the participant away.”
Abbey and her co-author Jacqueline Woerner, Ph.D. a social psychology post doc at Yale University, watched these interactions with the clinical objectivity of the upper management of the Westworld park. They noted how many times the drunken male participants tried to engage in an “upper level” sexual activity, despite the protests of their computerized female agent. After five refuted attempts at sex, the men were cut off from the simulation, and the screens went blank.
Post-date analysis revealed some sobering patterns in drunk male behavior. As the researchers predicted, the more consensual activities the “female simulation” agreed to, the more the male participants tended to persist when it came to sex, despite her stating her qualms. While 40 percent of men stopped insisting on sex after one refusal, alcohol tended to increase this persistent behavior.
But alcohol did not play a role in one of the study’s darker findings: the more sexual refusals the men received, the more “hostile verbal comments” they made toward the female simulations, regardless of how drunk they were. The authors provided 156 examples of some of these comments in the paper — horrible stuff like, “I have needs and we’ve been hanging out for a long time now.” Suffice to say, they were, to use the authors words, “extremely derogatory, demonstrating how seriously they took the simulation as well as the strength of their hostility toward women who thwart their sexual goals.”
On a more positive note, the researchers hope that eventually, this technology can help people learn about “perspective-taking” and learn to see the consequences of sexual aggression from a different perspective. For now, perhaps we can take the results of this study as a prompt to look in the mirror and use the tribulations of several “female simulations” to change the way men and women interact in the real world.