Saturday, April 13, 2024

Do People Think And Behave Differently In Virtual Reality Than They Do In Real Life?

Virtual reality started as an amazing future technology in Sci-Fi movies. The famous Holodeck on Starship Enterprise in the Star Trek TV series works on virtual reality, for example. However, it stopped being an object of imagination and became a real technology we can enjoy right now.

A Short History of Virtual Reality


The first machine capable of simulating a virtual reality environment was called the Sensorama and was created in 1962 by Morton Heilig. He also created five movies for the device. Once seated inside the Sensorama, the spectator would experience the film not only with sight and sound but also with smell and touch.

The first head mounted display for virtual reality appeared in 1968, the invention of Ivan Sutherland and a team of students. However, this device was so heavy, that it had to be suspended from the ceiling.

The first virtual reality movie was made in 1978 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was a very basic VR simulation of the sky resort Aspen in Colorado, and it allowed viewers to walk down the street in summer, winter and polygon mode.

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Consumer grade virtual reality headsets appeared in the early 1990s. Sega launched Sega VR together with the Mega Drive Console. The early attempts at VR simulation were very limited both in the field of view and depth of field (the perceived space around the person in VR mode).

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The prototype of a product you can find today in stores – the Oculus Rift headset – appeared as late as 2010, being designed by Palmer Luckey. Despite its limitation, this prototype had the most extensive field of vision ever seen in such a device – 90 degrees.

Four years later, Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion.

The following years, several companies joined the virtual reality race – with Google launching Cardboard, the cheapest VR headset to date (priced at around $20).

At present, the major players on the VR hardware market are Oculus Rift and HTC VIVE for headsets, and SonyPlayStation for game consoles.

How Is Virtual Reality Used at the Present?

Although gaming and entertainment are the two industries coming to mind, virtual reality has found practical applications in many other sectors, such as:

• Engineering and product design
• Healthcare
• Education and training
• Military
• Architecture and constructions

The key benefit of virtual reality for all these industries is the ability to perform limitless simulations and test product ideas by trial and error without any real-life consequences. virtual reality, At the same time, VR allows people to experience places, events, situations, and environments that would be impossible or extremely expensive to reach in real life, such as:

• Ancient historical sites
• Distant galaxies
• Exotic locations
• Major historical events (battles, treaty signing, etc.)
• Volcanoes in action

Thus, it would seem that virtual reality is a fantastic way of experiencing different realities and situations as if they were for real. It would seem that, since the simulations are so advanced that we cannot tell virtual reality from the real world, we do not act and think differently when immersed in VR environments.

However, scientists say that this is not true and several experiments support their view that we have different behaviors and attitudes in virtual reality compared to real life.

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The Milgram Experiment in Virtual Reality

The original Milgram experiment took place in the 1960s and wanted to test the level of people’s obedience to an authority figure. It involved a learner (a hired actor), the experimenter and the test subject. The test subject was supposed to punish the learner for his inability to memorize pairs of words by inflicting electrical shocks at the experimenter’s indication.

No actual electrical shocks were used, but the test subjects did not know this. They would hear the learner crying and asking them to stop the electrical shocks. The experiment showed that test subjects were willing to inflict lethal levels of electrical shocks on the learner because the experimenter (authority figure) told them to do it.

In 2006, a team of researchers from UCL and the University of Barcelona recreated the experiment in virtual reality.

They used two test groups:

  1. a group would see a human learner,
  2. the other, a virtual reality simulation.

The virtual reality test group showed reduced emotional responses during the experiment than the group who was supposed to harm a real-life person.

However, we must remember that virtual reality was not very developed at the time of the experiment. Thus, the reduced emotions of the VR group are explained by the fact that the holographic learner did not look and act like a real human being.

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The UCLA Experiment

Another scientific experiment involving virtual reality took place in 2017 at UCLA. Neuroscientist Mayank Mehta conducted a study on lab rats. One control group was monitored in a real-life environment. The other group explored the same room – but created in virtual reality.

The result?

The group of rats exploring the VR room had a very different brain activity compared to the control group.

In effect, 60% of the neurons in the hippocampus (the brain area responsible for the processes of learning and memorizing) were turned off.

This means that the rats did not perceive the VR room as a “real” room and thus did not have to make an effort to memorize its layout, obstacles, sources of food, etc.

The Yawn Experiment

The most recent experiment involving virtual reality took place very recently, on January 24, 2019. Researchers at the University of British Columbia wanted to understand how contagious yawning occurs.

As you may have experienced yourself, when you see someone else yawning, you feel like yawning yourself.

The scientists wanted to understand how a yawn propagates from person to person.

Two groups of volunteers were shown videos of people yawning, and they responded with yawns.

However, one group was in a real-life environment and the other in a virtual reality environment. After the contagious yawning propagated among the groups, the researchers introduced observers in the experiment.

The real-life group attempted to stifle their yawns because this gesture is perceived as rude in the society.

Surprisingly, although faced with a very realistic looking holographic human character, the VR group made no attempts to stifle their yawns.


The three experiments prove that both humans and rats act differently and their brains work differently in virtual reality compared to real life. It is proof that no matter how realistic, VR environments are not perceived as reality.

People have decreased emotional, cognitive and behavioral responses because they do not feel that they are being held accountable by social and moral rules for what they say and do.

Perhaps one day we will be unable to tell the difference between real life and virtual reality. For now, it seems that our moral compass is not fully activated in VR. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Voice your ideas in comments!

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Silvia Constantin
Silvia Constantin
SEO and Content writer, translator, dreamer. These are some of the words which describe Silvia. She believes in the power of words - both for good and for evil. She also believes that we can all choose to use words in a positive manner, to share information, ideas, feelings, and truth. There is nothing more rewarding than to be the instrument through which knowledge is shared among other people. From this point of view, she considers herself in a privileged position of trust, which she strives never to betray.

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