Virtual Reality (VR) as a technology is unique in its integration and connection with the person under the headset. VR technology works through using and creating what is termed ‘immersion’ and ‘presence’. In short, these transport the mind and sense of self to wherever and whatever the VR story tells. This psychological bridge is an area of study that interests many different types of psychologists, from cognitive to behavioural and sociological.
Want to read more about the psychology of VR? Read our other article, Your brain on Virtual Reality
What are the positive and negative effects of VR on real world behaviour?
VR has been proven to have a positive effect on a person’s real world self, from saving more trees to saving for their future. It sounds like an amazing new technology, but we must heed the warnings. Worryingly, it can also make people meaner and possibly more violent.
Summarised below are the latest findings from the top psychologists.
VR helps motivate people to exercise more.
Observing your VR avatar engaging in exercise increases your real world belief that you can successfully exercise and achieve your health aims. For the most part, sticking to a new exercise schedule is difficult. Not least because it takes a long time to start to see the physical effects of all your hard work. In the VR study, for every minute a person ran in the physical world, their avatar got physically slimmer. Directly linking the cause and effect reinforces the positive behaviour. Participants engaged in 10 times more exercise and stuck to their goals more than the research group that didn’t use the avatar1.
Virtual Reality makes people into real life superheroes
The Superman effect
Ever imagined yourself as a superhero? At some point, you’ve probably imagined yourself with super powers. VR can give you the opportunity to step into the shoes of Superman, Wonder Woman or your hero of choice. By immersing a person in a superhero world, every good deed simulated in VR can increase prosocial behaviour in the real world. A study into Virtual Superheroes by Rosenberg et al2 recreated Superman in VR, giving participants the power of flight. Their mission was to find and save a lost diabetic child by flying around the metropolitan city. Those with the experience of ‘super flight’ were more prosocial post experience, helping the experimenter pick up more pens when they ‘accidentally’ spilt them over the floor. Interestingly, they were quicker to help and helped for longer than those who didn’t get the Superman experience.
VR can help people think about the future
The time travel effect
Looking towards the future is difficult. Humans are notoriously bad at carrying out behaviours that would benefit their future selves. Whether it be saving for retirement or drinking less at the weekend. This is until they are confronted with their future selves in VR. The ability to take an avatar and age it in front of a person’s eyes makes them more future conscious. Connecting the behaviours of now with the visible effects of the future increases self-preserving behaviours. In Ersner-Hershfield’s study, feeling more connected to our future selves means that we are more likely to save for old age3.
The possible negative effects of VR
Can VR make us violent?
With the immersive aspect of VR, are the fears many associated with gaming relevant to VR? A mass of research shows that violent media increases aggression and violent behaviour, both in the short and long term4. The same can be said for violent activities in VR5. There is only a small amount of research into the effects of VR and aggression behaviour. But the few studies agree that it does increase arousal6 and aggressive thoughts7 due to the first person, immersive interaction with the behaviour.
Creating false memories
Humans are innately creative beings, and no more so than when it comes to our recall of past events. It leads to an odd phenomenon called ‘false memories’. Memories that make us not only think, but 100% believe that we have been somewhere or done something when we haven’t. They can be a simple distortion of event recall or a completely fabricated memory. It can be caused by something as easy as looking at a photograph, adding in different details that can be mixed into your memory of something8. Segovia took the idea of false memories and wondered what impact VR would have. Interestingly, Segovia found that when we witness a doppelgänger engaging in a certain behaviour or activity, we are more likely to create a false memory and think we did the same behaviour in the real world.
Worryingly, children are more susceptible to the creation of false memories9.
Segovia took a group of children on a day trip to VR Sea World, where the children swam with whales. When asked about their trip a week later, the children not only believed they swam with whales in the real world, they also elaborated with recall stories to include details not in the simulation, like what they ate beforehand.
Other real world effects
Adverts are increasingly getting smarter and more personalised. Could we be heading to a ‘Minority Report’ style of advertising? Where adverts call out our own names and sell to us directly? With VR, that is a real possibility.10
Personalisation of a VR environment and the psychology of self-endorsing could be the next step in advertising. Studies have shown that what a person wears and uses in a VR world can affect their opinions in the physical world. If your avatar wears a top emblazoned with a brand’s logo, you are more likely to recall and prefer that brand in the physical world.11
Your avatar acts as an extension of yourself. So when you see your avatar acting as a product endorser, the ‘self-referencing effect’ means you are then more likely to want that brand later on.
VR is an exciting technology and new arm of the design field. As both creators and users of VR in the future, we should be highly aware of the great work psychologists are doing around the area. The highly immersive aspect of VR means the worlds we create have a direct psychological bridge to our behaviour and well-being – a bridge that we all should use for the better.
Have any insights into VR or want to ask a question? I'd love to read your comments, so add them below.
Rosenberg, R. Baughman, S. Bailenson, J. Virtual Superheroes: Using Superpowers in Virtual Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior 2013 ↩
Ersner-Hershfield, H., Bailenson, J, & Carstensen, L Feeling more connected to your future self: Using immersive virtual reality to increase retirement saving. 2008 ↩
American Psychological Association Violence in the Media - Psychologists Study TV and Video Game Violence for Potential Harmful Effects 2013 ↩
Rovira, A. Swapp, D. Spanlang, B. Slater, M. The Use of Virtual Reality in the Study of People's Responses to Violent Incidents 2009 ↩
Loftus, E. Pickrell, J. The Formation of False Memories. Psychiatric Annals 1995 ↩
Brainerd , C. Reyna, V. Forrest, T. Are young children susceptible to the false-memory illusion? 2002 ↩