National Edition

Virtual reality going beyond games to influence everyday behavior

Published: Tuesday, July 16 2013 8:10 p.m. MDT

Meeting your older self in virtual reality may make you want to save more money for the future.


Imagine you are a cow.

Would it change your behavior towards beef? Would you really "Eat Mor Chikin"?

Imagine you are a lumberjack cutting down a mighty tree.

Would it make you want to buy toilet paper made from recycled paper?

The social sciences have a long history of altering situations to see how it affects people's behavior. Now studies are looking at how the intense experiences of virtual reality — interactive technology such as stereo video goggles — can change behavior in the real world.

Paul Solman at PBS Newshour spoke with Jeremy Bailenson who runs the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. "Video game violence research shows that if you put someone in a virtual scene that's nasty and violent, they behave more aggressively in the physical world," Bailenson says. "What we need to do is to think about the wonderful things we can do in these virtual worlds that can make the world a better place."

Some of those "wonderful things" are encouraging young people to save more. In a study that Bailenson and others worked on, they created avatars for people to interact with in a virtual world. These avatars were designed to look just like the young people trying the virtual reality — except they were 40 to 50 years older looking. So the virtual reality experience was like interacting with your future, older self.

Those people who "met" their older selves, in all cases, "exhibited an increased tendency to accept later monetary rewards over immediate ones."

"The visceral experience of seeing your image in the mirror as older than you are causes this deep connection to your future self, and this is what drives future savings behavior," Bailenson told PBS Newshour.

Virtual reality goes beyond just imagination, Solman reported, and can have a long-lasting affect on how a person behaves. As Bailenson says, virtual reality comes with a cost: "They change the way you think about yourself."

Other tests using virtual reality has had people swimming with the fishes — and then discovering murky polluted water. This makes people "think twice about using plastic bags," Solman says.

Using a virtual reality chainsaw to cut down a tree — with vibrating feedback into the hands and seeing it come down in a 3D immersive reality, makes people consider their paper purchases.

And yes, Bailenson has created a virtual reality immersive experience that requires people to get on all fours like a cow. "We're trying to make a more visceral connection between an understanding about where your meat comes from and you're feeling what it's like to be led to slaughter," he says.

This is, of course, to get people to eat less meat.

Solman's PBS report does not, however, mention any virtual chickens.

EMAIL: mdegroote@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @degroote

Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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