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5 Ways Virtual Reality Can Help Us Understand Human Behavior

Researchers identify 5 benefits of using VR over traditional research tools.

Key points

  • Automatic data collection allows subtle aspects of human behavior to be evaluated in ways that traditional observation cannot.
  • VR can measure risky choices such as drug-use or sexual-health decisions that are difficult to capture with traditional questionnaires.
  • It is possible through VR to manipulate specific physical characteristics of virtual humans in a way not possible with confederates.

Traditional research tools such as surveys, observing people’s behaviors, and using confederate actors in experiments has helped psychologists learn a lot about human behavior. However, many crucial questions remain.

Recently, my colleague Susan Persky and I identified five key advantages of using virtual reality for psychological research. These advantages make up the acronym “DREAM”: data collection, realism, experimental control, adaptability, and mobility. Below we explain how psychologists can use these advantages to answer currently impractical or impossible questions about human behavior.

Data Collection

  • Precise measurements of physical movements are taken covertly, automatically, and continuously over time, eliminating the requirement for resource-intensive human observation.
  • VR captures subtle indicators of variables participants are unable or unwilling to verbalize.

Automatic data collection allows subtle aspects of human behavior and social interactions to be evaluated in ways that traditional observation cannot. Researchers can measure how close people stand to others, whether they are turned toward them or away, and whether they are looking at them directly. These subtle physical movements can be a proxy for intentions. Where participants look and move, or how they interact with objects, may provide researchers with information about their psychological states. Already, behavioral tracings have been used as a proxy for implicit bias. For example, researchers have found that medical students make less visual contact with a virtual patient with obesity than a lean virtual patient.

Realism

  • The immersive nature of VR allows users to feel a sense of presence.
  • VR stimuli can elicit ecologically valid behaviors.
  • Largely unconstrained participant responses are possible.

VR can elicit natural behaviors from participants due to the realism that is created by the simulated environment. The VR environment can feel real, despite computer-generated graphics, because VR can mimic perceptual and psychological elements of the real world. A realistic virtual bar scene, complete with beer taps and patrons, was used to induce cravings for alcohol in research on heavily-drinking college students. VR environments may be particularly suited to measuring risky choices, such as drug-use or sexual-health choices because researchers can capture rapid, emotion-based choices. Risky decisions are typically impulsive and reactive and therefore difficult to capture with traditional questionnaires.

VR is also particularly useful for creating realistic environments that would be impractical to create in the real world. For example, researchers measured participants’ stress levels during a public speaking task, where the virtual audience looked progressively bored and disappointed. Although this research could have technically been conducted in the real world, a large audience with standardized behavior in a high-stakes environment (i.e., an auditorium) is far more practical to create virtually.

Experimental Control

  • A VR stimulus is presented in exactly the same format every time, ensuring standardization.
  • Control over almost all sensory input reduces the impact of extraneous variables and noise in data collection.
  • By allowing manipulation of only the variable of interest, concerns about possible systematic confounds are reduced.

When investigating social interactions, experiments often require confederate actors to play a role — such as simulated patients. It is almost impossible to ensure that different actors, or even the same actor on multiple occasions, acts in a standardized manner for each participant. Virtual humans can take on any role, from patients to police officers to children, to examine a range of social and interpersonal research questions with total experimental control. For example, researchers have investigated whether patients’ health attitudes were influenced by the communication approach (supportive vs. directive) of a virtual physician. It is also possible to manipulate specific physical characteristics of virtual humans in a way not possible with confederates. Researchers have consistently found that healthcare providers treat virtual patients differently depending on a variety of characteristics, including race, gender, age, and weight. Again, all other aspects can be held constant, so it is possible to determine how exactly a single characteristic such as race, gender, age, or weight triggers bias directly.

Adaptability

  • Researchers can create any situation as needed, even if it is rare or impossible in real life.
  • VR includes the ability for perspective-taking – participants can virtually walk in another person’s shoes.
  • Dangerous or harmful scenarios can be simulated without placing participants at risk.

Psychologists may wish to use VR because the virtual environment can be adapted to simulate any situation, constrained only by researchers’ imaginations. Researchers can create any situation as needed even if it is rare or impossible in real life, including situations which would place participants in danger. For example, researchers asked older adults to cross a virtual street while distracted to study pedestrian safety. Participants who were busy talking on a cell phone or listening to music were more likely to have a collision with a virtual car.

VR can also simulate physical changes to our own bodies, giving us the ability to virtually “walk in another person’s shoes." For example, healthcare professionals could experience what it is like to be a patient, virtually taking on the patient’s body and health problems. Researchers have already altered apparent weight, height, and visual acuity of avatars to give users a taste of what it may be like to have different characteristics and restrictions.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexel-
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexel-

Mobility

  • Once a VR-based experiment is created, it can be directly replicated anywhere, including in hard-to-reach settings and populations.
  • Physical lab or clinic space is not required for VR-based research.

One large untapped area of potential for VR research is utilizing its mobility to diversify participants in research studies. Multi-site research teams and those desiring to study difficult-to-reach populations may appreciate the mobility of VR, which allows standardized research to be conducted across various locations or in the community. Not only does the mobility of VR allow researchers to take headsets to their participants in various locations, but it also allows them to tap into vast consumer VR markets to collect data from around the world in existing virtual communities. In social VR, multiple people interact in the same virtual space although they are physically in different locations and can form genuine friendships and interlinked communities.

VR is a novel tool in psychologists’ toolbox with much untapped potential. Here we identified five key advantages of using VR as a research tool: data collection, realism, experimental control, adaptability, and mobility (DREAM). It is our hope to inspire researchers to consider whether and how VR might be used to augment their own research programs or answer currently impracticable research questions.

References

Martingano, A. J., & Persky, S. (2021). Virtual reality expands the toolkit for conducting health psychology research. Personality and Social Psychology Compass. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12606

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