Oliver Jacobs & Nicola Anderson, Ph.D.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality Is Reality

To suggest VR is not real is both naive and dangerous.

Posted May 26, 2019

The value of VR for research is indisputable – from enabling us to study more naturalistic behaviour, to increasing experimental control, to giving us new forms of therapies for reducing phobias, or even implicit biases (Bedder et al., 2019).  It’s clear; VR is not Dying – at least for Psychology. But, while it's important to point out that VR gives us a powerful new methodological tool – it also introduces new ethical dilemmas that need to be fully explored and regarded with caution. Of particular concern is the widespread belief that VR is not real and as such it can be used to study topics where for ethical or safety reasons researchers were previously unable to explore. 

Oliver Jacobs
Source: Oliver Jacobs

Firstly, VR is unequivocally real in the sense that it can produce strong, visceral, and realistic physiological and emotional responses to virtual simulations of aspects of the real world. To suggest otherwise is dangerous yet pervasive both in the scientific community and the public domain (Ramirez, 2019). This fallacy that participants, researchers, and even IRBs fall for is alarming – if it’s not real it’s not dangerous. We should never neglect the psychological harm that can be induced by simulating traumatizing situations.  Illustrating this point, a well-known VR replication study (Sanchez-Vives et al., 2006) was predicated on the idea that it can more accurately replicate the infamous Milgram experiments because it is in virtual reality. 

This quote demonstrates the naivety of VR research and its ethics:

“This result reopens the door to direct empirical studies of obedience and related extreme social situations, an area of research that is otherwise not open to experimental study for ethical reasons, through the employment of virtual environments. “ (Sanchez-Vives et al., 2006)

The problem is that if a virtual environment elicits the same physiological and emotional reactions out of its participant as the environment it is modeling – then experiencing the virtual environment presents the same non-physical risks as the actual environment (Ramirez, 2019). Clearly, we cannot and should not place people in virtual environments to study ethically ambiguous research topics if the actual phenomenon and the dangers it entails are translated into the VR environment.  

The suggestion that since VR is not real it cannot be harmful is in and of itself an extremely dangerous belief. VR undoubtedly produces real emotional and physiological reactions in similar magnitudes to real life (Rovira, 2010). Thus, it can inarguably cause trauma regardless of whether the stimuli are objectively real or not. It’s a strange endorsement to hold – people would almost unanimously agree that while video is just a digital representation of the real world, it is real in the sense that the content in the video can create serious emotional trauma. Logically, we have safety mechanisms like movie ratings and disclaimers in order to avoid subjecting viewers to disturbing content without their consent. People would never say that a movie is not disturbing because viewers 'can always close their eyes'. How is VR not the same? It is not reasonable to think that just because participants can take off the headset at any time that they cannot feel extreme discomfort.  

Even worse is that the predictors that mediate susceptibility to trauma from video include its realism and the sense of immersion users feel when exposed to the stimuli. Both immersion and realism are significantly heightened in VR to the point that they are much more capable of eliciting strong emotional and physiological reactions from its users compared to older forms of media like film and photography (Gorini et al., 2009). We need to accept that if more crude digital representations of the real world can induce trauma – we ought to prepare for more accurate digital representations to be increasingly capable of inducing trauma no less real as that from the real world. 

At first glance, the ethics of research using VR appears to be only a minor problem in science – and indeed for now it may be as there are relatively few labs using VR despite growing popularity. However, as VR becomes a more ubiquitous research tool and as it evolves as a technology and is more capable of simulating real environments – questionable ethics practices around VR could become more common and more severe in their consequences. It is ironic that in society there is a growing understanding of the importance of psychological harm – yet VR research often suffers from the same fallacious belief that the only harm of importance is physical. 


Bedder, R. L., Bush, D., Banakou, D., Peck, T., Slater, M., & Burgess, N. (2019). A mechanistic account of bodily resonance and implicit bias. Cognition, 184, 1–10. 

Gorini, A., Luis, M. J., Mosso, D., Pineda, E., Ruiz, N. L., Ramíez, M., … Riva, G. (2009). Emotional Response to Virtual Reality Exposure across Different Cultures: The Role of the Attribution Process. Cyber Psychology & Behavior, 12(6), 699–705.

Ramirez, E. J. (2019). Ecological and ethical issues in virtual reality research: A call for increased scrutiny. Philosophical Psychology, 32(2), 211–233.

Rovira, A. (2010). The use of virtual reality in the study of people’s responses to violent incidents. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 3, 1–10

Sanchez-Vives, M. V., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Antley, A., Slater, M., Guger, C., … Barker, C. (2006). A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. PLoS ONE1(1),