How virtual acts change attitudes

STANFORD (US) — A virtual reality environment can literally change behavior in the real world, according to a new study.

People who were told to “cut down” a sequoia redwood in a 3-D forest were less likely to waste paper later, says  Stanford University graduate student Sun Joo Ahn, whose doctoral dissertation outlines the findings. “We found that virtual reality can change how people behave.”

“That’s the big result. When people are in virtual reality and going through the motions of actually cutting down this tree, it might make them feel more personally accountable or responsible for the damage that occurred.”

Ahn’s work is among the latest batch of studies to come from the Virtual Human Interaction Lab led by Jeremy Bailenson, associate professor of communication.

Researchers are trying to better understand how advances in digital media like 3-D movies and interactive video games are affecting people’s real-life experiences, and how those technologies can influence and change people’s behavior.

“People want—and are becoming more used to—immersive media experiences,” says Bailenson. “You’re going to need more than an instructional video or a pamphlet to explain something that requires a change in behavior. You need to make people feel like they’re literally engaged.”

For one of the studies, 50 people read some information about how the use of non-recycled paper leads to deforestation. She then had one group of subjects read an in-depth account of what happens when a chainsaw buzzes through a tree. The piece described chirping birds in the forest, the sound and vibration of the saw, and the snapping of branches.

A second group of subjects didn’t read the description, but instead were plunged into a virtual forest. Outfitted with a helmet-like device that cut off their vision from the real world and surrounded with the sights and sounds of a computerized woodland, they felt like they were there.

Using a special joystick called a haptic device, the subjects were able to control the back-and-forth motions of the chainsaw that their virtual selves used to cut down the tree. As they sawed for about three minutes, the haptic device vibrated in their hands to simulate the feeling of the real thing.

Regardless of which group they were in, all the participants said they had a stronger belief that their personal actions could improve the quality of the environment compared to how they felt before they either read about tree cutting or chopped down an evergreen in the fake forest.

But when it came time to put that belief into practice, only the tree choppers cut their paper use.

Before letting them leave the lab, Ahn had the subjects in both groups sit at a desk and fill out some forms. She placed a stack of paper napkins and a glass of water on the desk and pretended to accidentally knock the glass over. The subjects reflexively grabbed napkins to clean the spill, and Ahn later counted how many were used.

Those who only read about logging used an average of 20 percent more napkins than the virtual lumberjacks.

“This study isn’t all about trees,” says Ahn. “It’s about how we are able to use an immersive virtual environment to create a change in behavior in the physical world. We showed that just three minutes of an embodied experience could produce a behavioral result.”

More news from Stanford University: