How Are VR Headsets Changing Our Behaviour?


In a previous blog we looked at how Virtual Reality headsets are set to influence our day to day lives for learning, entertainment, communications and in the workplace. Now we’re starting to see how this form of technology may go about influencing our behaviour.

Ultimately this is a new stage in wearables. Firstly by stepping into a virtual world and secondly by becoming more integrated with wearing your digital technology, in a not too subtle way! Naturally living in a virtual world has the ability to change how we react and behave.

The environmental journalist Amy Westervelt has looked extensively into how this form of technology can change people’s ideas around climate change. By wearing the headset the user is submerged into a virtual world and finds themselves in a forest. Here they are able to cut trees down themselves whilst thinking about how this makes them feel. For the next few weeks participants live with the daily consequences of cutting down trees and how this affects their paper consumption and day to day lives, whilst impacting on the world they live in. This strategy is being used as a motivator by some campaigners and activists to get people engaged in an issue they have previously been apathetic about. Research shows that when a person’s perceptions have been changed in a simulated environment they then carry this out into the physical world. Using VR headsets participants are able to see and experience the long term effects of their actions. Imagine if we had used this technology in the run up to the May elections – would we have found that the 40% of people who didn’t vote somehow would have made it to the ballot box?

The ‘tree cutting’ study has been used extensively by researchers at Stanford University in their ‘Virtual Human Interaction Lab’ which focuses on further exploring how virtual behaviour affects our actions in the real world. As a cognitive psychologist at Stanford says “the brain treats the virtual world as real but knows that in a simulated environment the outcome can be different if altered”. Being able to jump ahead to the impact and consequences of our actions helps us to make positive changes and could be applied to anything from getting people to vote, to helping them stop smoking or lose weight. Ultimately it can work for anything where a change of pattern or behaviour is required.

This article from the BBC asks ‘Can Virtual Reality Headsets Make You a Better Person?’ This again follows a participant at Stanfords ‘Virtual Human Interaction Lab’. On this occasion the participant is transported into a room with a narrow wooden plank over a vertical drop which they walk across. This VR test is known as ‘The Pit’ and challenges people’s ideas around fear and control. Some who enter logically knowing it’s a VR experiment can be the first to reach for the side of the walls and refuse to ‘walk the plank’. It’s no wonder this type of technology is being more widely used to elicit feelings of empathy and compassion around situations that people had previously felt indifferent about.

One of the more interesting ways VR is being applied to behaviour change is in the health sector. VR headsets are starting to be used in some hospitals as part of ‘distraction therapy’ for burns victims. The VR headsets keep the participant in a virtual world while going through treatments that would otherwise be hugely painful. This works well because the rational mind is unable to take over once the participant is submerged in an ‘alternative reality’ which helps manage the messages to the brain about the level of pain the participant is feeling, keeping them distracted throughout their treatment.

With this being one of the fastest growing types of technology and a potentially huge impact in the health sector VR and behaviour change is something we’ll be writing about more in the coming months.