People Act Differently in Virtual Reality Than in Real Life

In our increasingly digital world, real life remains incredibly important for genuine human interactions.

Immersive virtual reality (VR) can be remarkably lifelike, but new UBC research has found a yawning gap between how people respond psychologically in VR and how they respond in real life.

“People expect VR experiences to mimic actual reality and thus induce similar forms of thought and behaviour,” said Alan Kingstone, a professor in UBC’s department of psychology and the study’s senior author. “This study shows that there’s a big separation between being in the real world, and being in a VR world.”

The study used virtual reality to examine factors that influence yawning, focusing specifically on contagious yawning. Contagious yawning is a well-documented phenomenon in which people — and some non-human animals — yawn reflexively when they detect a yawn nearby.

Research has shown that “social presence” deters contagious yawning. When people believe they are being watched, they yawn less, or at least resist the urge. This may be due to the stigma of yawning in social settings, or its perception in many cultures as a sign of boredom or rudeness.

The team from UBC, along with Andrew Gallup from State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, tried to bring about contagious yawning in a VR environment. They had test subjects wear an immersive headset and exposed them to videos of people yawning. In those conditions, the rate of contagious yawning was 38 per cent, which is in line with the typical real-life rate of 30-60 per cent.

However, when the researchers introduced social presence in the virtual environment, they were surprised to find it had little effect on subjects’ yawning. Subjects yawned at the same rate, even while being watched by a virtual human avatar or a virtual webcam. It was an interesting paradox: stimuli that trigger contagious yawns in real life did the same in virtual reality, but stimuli that suppress yawns in real life did not.

The presence of an actual person in the testing room had a more significant effect on yawning than anything in the VR environment. Even though subjects couldn’t see or hear their company, simply knowing a researcher was present was enough to diminish their yawning. Social cues in actual reality appeared to dominate and supersede those in virtual reality.

Virtual reality has caught on as a research tool in psychology and other fields, but these findings show that researchers may need to account for its limitations.

“Using VR to examine how people think and behave in real life may very well lead to conclusions that are fundamentally wrong. This has profound implications for people who hope to use VR to make accurate projections regarding future behaviours,” said Kingstone. “For example, predicting how pedestrians will behave when walking amongst driverless cars, or the decisions that pilots will make in an emergency situation. Experiences in VR may be a poor proxy for real life.”

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Using Virtual Reality in Beneficial Ways

Virtual reality is technology that’s advancing from being fringe to something that’s gradually becoming implemented more in the 21st century. This trend will only continue with lower costs of materials for virtualization and improved software.

The way virtual reality works is obvious enough — some sort of apparatus that covers the eyes and is able to transmit visual of a virtual world is required. Virtual worlds of course will have sounds to make them more immersive, and perhaps in the future there will be an option to stimulate other senses as well. It isn’t unreasonable to expect the possibility of VR technology that somehow provides the replication of smell, taste, and feel. Eventually there is likely to be VR technology with direct brain stimulation too.

Virtual reality is often presented these days as a fun way to spend time through gaming, and while it can be beneficial to provide people with an escape that doesn’t involve hard drugs in a world that’s often crazy and fucked up, virtual reality has other uses that deserve to be known about more.

One of the most notable recent findings is a study finding that people recall information better through virtual reality. Since knowledge is power, the enhanced ability of people to recall knowledge would be helpful in a variety of scenarios, such as training people for meaningful work, keeping fond memories more effectively, and assisting in educational endeavors. This could be combined with other research finding that drawing pictures is a strong way to remember information.

Most people are not especially good multi-taskers — the research tells us that only a few percent of people are “super taskers,” or those with the ability to focus on multiple tasks well. For whatever reason this is, it’s a general principle that human beings tend to perform better when their primary focus is on one task at a given time. Virtual reality thus provides an immersive environment that should allow people to focus more on one task than a traditional 2D learning environment.

VR has been shown to reduce the fear children have for needles in one study. This makes sense due to the distraction from VR’s intense immersion. Since the fear of needles is a suffocating one for some children, something as simple as a VR experience of going to an amusement park or a beach would be immensely helpful.

There’s a problem of too many people avoiding vital vaccinations in the United States, leading to diseases that should have been extinguished in the 20th century suddenly making recurrences in certain parts of the country. This is another example of how technology can be used to solve a real problem and protect society.

VR’s distraction could be extended to surgeries where local anathesia is used, thus protecting people from pain. It has already been found that virtual reality therapy is effective at reducing pain in hospitalized patients. It isn’t entirely clear why, but it may be because the VR experience is so immersive that the brain is unable to concurrently process the pain stimuli along with the VR.

It has been theorized that people have a fixed capacity for attention, and it has also been thought that when people are expecting physical pain in the immediate future, they tend to feel it more intensely. This may be because instead of the pain being a surprise, the increased focus on it before the pain hits may cause it to be felt more strongly.

Virtual reality will also have an important role in the journalism of the future. Studies have found that VR makes journalism more immersive, such as the VR story about factory farming being successful at raising more awareness of the horrific treatment often endured by animals.

VR can thus be an effective tool at fighting corruption and injustice in an era where young people generally — for whatever reason — are reading less than past generations. It has been found that too much use of fantasy-like elements in VR distract from the realism of the story and can make them less credible, however.

VR has also been referred to as an “empathy machine.” It’s conceivable that VR could be used for rehabilitation — use of the technology has already shown promise at increasing empathy levels, and VR shows promising mental health treatment results. The immersive virtual experience of owning a body in VR space has at times shown to really have an impact at altering perceptions and making important impressions.

In sum, while interactions in real life will always have importance that’s often most meaningful, there are many ways that virtual reality may improve the livelihoods of others.