Can a Virtual Environment Make You an Environmentalist?

Research shows that interacting in a virtual forest promotes green behavior.

Posted Jan 21, 2014

Participants in Ahn's studies cut down a tree in a virtual forest.

Imagine taking a stroll through a lush, green forest. You’re surrounded by trees, and the blue sky looms above. You hear the perky chirps of birds. You stand before a huge, thick-trunked tree and gaze upward through the branches.

Then, you look down in your hands. What’s that? A chainsaw? Suddenly you hear the buzzing of the saw and feel its vibrations in your hands.

This is the virtual world that Dr. Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn at the University of Georgia has designed to persuade people to engage in pro-environmental behavior. In her research, she has people put on a virtual reality headset—not unlike those becoming popular among video gamers—and use a special controller that can mimic the sensation of holding a chainsaw.

In her research, Ahn exposes participants to these virtual forests and then examines their attitudes and behaviors afterwards. She studies how these virtual forests change individuals' feelings of environmental self-efficacy (i.e., whether or not people feel they are able to perform environmental behaviors), environmental intentions (i.e., whether or not people intend on performing these behaviors), and also their self-reported environmental behavior in the days after the study. 

Of course, people may be inclined to say that they're recycling or conserving paper when they actually aren't. So, in her research Ahn employs a clever covert behavioral measure to measure pro-environmental behavior after participants experience the virtual forest. Throughout the experiment, the experimenter pretends to be drinking from a cup of water. After the participant experiences the virtual forest, he or she is asked to sit at a table and fill out a survey. The experimenter then “accidentally” knocks over the cup of water, which spills all over the table. The experiment then asks for help cleaning up and leaves the room after giving the participant a pre-counted stack of napkins. Later, the number of napkins participants used to clean up the spill is counted. Ahn has found in multiple studies that participants exposed to the virtual forest conserve the paper napkins and use fewer napkins to clean up the spill than those who do not experience the virtual forest.

You may be thinking: why do you need a fancy virtual world to send a simple pro-environmental message about saving paper? In her studies, Ahn has found that the virtual forest is more effective than traditional media messages. In one study, she and her colleagues found that having people saw down a tree in the virtual forest was more effective in changing behavior than having them read a passage about cutting down a tree (similar to an environmental brochure). When cleaning up the water spill, participants who cut down trees in the virtual forest used 20% fewer napkins than those who merely read about tree-cutting.

In another study, Ahn and colleagues wanted to see if merely watching the forest (as one would on a television) would be as persuasive as interacting with the virtual forest. She found that one week after the experiment, people who had interacted with the virtual forest reported more pro-environmental behaviors than people who had just watched it. These studies suggest that interactive virtual worlds are more effective in promoting environmental behaviors than traditional forms of media like brochures or television.

Dr. Ahn's research is part of a new trend using new technology to address environmental issues. Video games designed to promote environmental behaviors are also becoming increasingly popular. Many scientists and game designers work to create “serious games,” which typically feature a virtual world designed to deliver a prosocial message. Researchers then hope that what players learn and practice in these worlds will carry over into their real world behaviors. For example, WolfQuest is a game funded by the National Science Foundation that allows players to experience life as a wolf in Yellowstone Park. The designers hope that players will learn more about wolves and the importance of preserving their habitat by playing the game. Another video game, McVideoGame, adopts a more satirical approach and makes players into the head honchos at a fast food chain. The game educates the player about distal consequences of fast food consumption, such as rain forest destruction.

Thus, there are many opportunities for us to learn about saving the planet, and many of those are becoming increasingly interactive and effective—and maybe with a little fun to boot. We can hope that virtual worlds can continue to help us learn and practice behaviors that will also help preserve the physical world.

Further reading:

Ahn, S. J., Bailenson, J. N, & Park, D. (2013). Short- and long-term effects of embodied experiences in immersive virtual environments on environmental locus of control and behavior. 

Ahn, S. J., Fox, J., Dale, K. R., & Avant, J. A. (2014). Framing virtual experiences: Effects on environmental efficacy and behavior over time. Communication Research.

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