IT has been analysed in universities around the world for 50 years.

But now new work has rewritten the findings of one of psychology’s most famous studies.

The Milgram experiment, conducted at Yale University, tasked volunteers with administering electric shocks to actors who faked pain and discomfort throughout.

The tests measured the willingness of participants to follow orders even when they caused harm to others.

Scientist Stanley Milgram theorised that those given responsibilities regard themselves as agents and take little or no responsibility for the outcome of their actions.

However, a newly published international study which involves Scots researchers has emerged to challenge this.

Teams from the universities of St Andrews, Barcelona, Queensland and University College London collaborated on a virtual reality replication of the Milgram experiment, which saw “learners” supposedly shocked for making errors in memory tests carried out for academic research.

They discovered that people actively sought to avoid giving the learners shocks by emphasising the correct answers to the task.

And, as with Milgram, they continued to obey instructions and administer the charges when required.

However, the team found this was not because they felt no responsibility for causing harm – but because they regarded it as a small matter when compared to the potential benefit of the overall project.

Professor Stephen Reicher, of the School of Psychology at St Andrews, said: “It’s not that people harm others because they aren’t aware or don’t care.

“In some ways, the reality is even more disturbing – we can harm others despite caring about them because we think it is justified in furtherance of a worthier cause.”

Dr Megan Birney, who helped design the studies at St Andrews and has since moved to the University of Chester at University Centre Shrewsbury, added: “It’s the old argument about serving ‘the greater good’ – a truly toxic idea.”

Colleague Dr Megan Birney, a social psychologist currently working at the University of Chester at University Centre Shrewsbury, went on: “For many years, people had doubts about Milgram’s claim that people obey the most harmful instructions simply because they don’t attend to the consequences of their actions but it was hard to do studies to refute it.

“This virtual reality study, part of a larger Economic and Social Research Council project on obedience, finally allows us to lay this argument to rest.”

Milgram’s work had been used to explain why individuals participated in torture and aided the persecution of Jews and other minorities during the Holocaust.

It has since been challenged in a number of separate pieces of research carried out by academics around the world.

The new findings are published in the specialist journal PLoS One.

Dr Mar Gonzalez-Franco of Microsoft Research, who conducted the research in the virtual reality “cave” at University College London, said the work is also important from a computer science perspective.

She explained: “This work is an example of how virtual reality helps us to understand difficult and important topics that otherwise would be very hard to research in an ethical way.”

And fellow team member, professor Mel Slater of the University of Barcelona, said: “The study is part of our wider program of work showing that even though people know they are in a virtual reality simulation they tend to behave much as they would in similar circumstances in reality.

“Virtual reality offers huge opportunities for psychological and other social science research.”