What is Virtual Reality?
Researchers have long sought to incorporate the use of state-of-the-art technology as a vehicle to change behavior. While Virtual Reality (VR) has become increasingly talked about as of late (at time of writing, in 2017), the technology has actually been around for decades, with seminal constructs of VR having been around since the 1960s. Witmer and Singer (1998) describe immersive virtual environments (IVEs) “as those that perceptually surrounds an individual. In this sense, immersion in such an environment is characterized as a psychological state in which the individual perceives himself or herself to be enveloped by, included in, and interacting with an environment that provides a continuous stream of stimuli”.
Why VR Works
Arguably, the use of simulation as a means to influence behavior has been around for a long time. Social psychologists have been creating virtual (synthetic) environments or even immersive ones for decades using hard scenery, props, and real people. Milgram’s (1963) obedience environment, for example, is amongst the most well-known and publicized.
Today, however, we are able to generate immersive virtual environments with laboratory computer technology. Using standard smartphones plugged into VR headsets, we can create an almost infinite number of simulations, some of which would not be possible to recreate in any traditional laboratory setting.
VR works, then, by taking a modern approach to an old methodology, in which we can test a particular behavior through the manipulation of the environment.
How VR works (in influencing our behavior)
The ability of VR to blur the distinction between reality and its virtual representation is what sets it apart from traditional forms of media (Ellis,1991). What separates VR from more traditional means of consumer content, such as TV or PCs, are the following three factors: levels of immersion, interactivity, and presence.
Immersion is best described metaphorically, in that psychological immersion seeks to induce the same feeling from an experience that we would get from a physical immersion, such as taking a plunge in the ocean or a swimming pool. It is the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality. VR is able to deliver immersion in bundles as the user is completely absorbed in another world.
Interactivity is another unique feature of VR that provides a sense of relationship between the user and their environment (Leiner & Quiring 2008). Users can walk, touch, feel, and, maybe one day, even smell their virtual world, adding another level of realism to their environment.
Presence is the final way in which VR is able to trick our minds into feeling that the mediated experience we are in is “real.” Interestingly, in a study of video gamers, researchers found that users playing an aggressive game in a virtual environment were more aggressive than those playing the same game on a PC – that is, high presence led to more aggressive feelings (Cummings et al, 2008). Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the degree of presence can affect our emotions — an insight that films like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project tapped into with their first person perspective style of storytelling, deliberately aimed to induce anxiety in those watching.
So what does this have to do with climate change, and why is VR important? Well, as we saw earlier in this article, our behavior is often at odds with our longer term interests, and this is in part due to us engaging in activities that seek to gratify immediate wants and needs, putting off those that are more effortful (e.g. driving to the shops instead of taking the bus). We also saw that people often don’t have a concrete understanding of what climate change is, and what the tangible impacts of it may be. VR has the unique ability to address these issues by fully immersing the user in an environment where she feels as though climate change is happening in the present. The immediacy of the events has the potential to resonate on a deeper emotional level. This then allows researchers to test whether these factors influence our behavior in the real world, such as energy consumption.
Is There Any Proof This Actually Works?
Experimenting with VR scientifically remains a relatively new (but growing) field of research. Stanford University are leaders in the field, with a growing number of publications highlighting the significant effects obtained using VR to change behavior. In one experiment, researchers looked at the effects of VR on impacting pro-environmental behavior in the real world (Joo et al, 2014). In this experiment, researchers were able to compare the effects of people virtually cutting down a tree, versus hearing a graphic description of the same event. Unbeknownst to both groups of participants, the researchers wanted to test how many paper napkins each group would use when the researcher “accidentally” spilled some water after they had finished with the experiment. Those in the treatment group who “embodied” the virtual lumberjack picked up 20% less paper napkins to clean the spill than those in the control – a statistically significant finding, and one that provides support for the view that VR really can influence real world behaviors.
There is still a lot of headway to be made with researchers using this technology, but as demonstrated in this article, the potential of VR to affect our unconscious decision making through the use of increased levels of immersion, interactivity, and presence is potentially huge. As VR continues to advance in its realism and as the costs of producing simulations goes down, this medium offers future researchers an interesting tool to enable positive behavioral change en masse.