In a new study, researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) have found a gap between how people respond psychologically in virtual reality and how they respond in actual reality. According to UBC professor Alan Kingstone, people expect virtual reality experiences to mimic real life experiences and tend to induce similar forms of thoughts and behavior.
The study, appeared in the journal Scientific Reports, showed that there is a huge separation between being in a virtual reality world and being in the real world. The researchers used virtual reality to investigate factors that influence yawning, particularly contagious yawning – a well-documented phenomenon in which humans and certain animals yawn reflexively on detecting a yawn nearby.
Earlier research has also shown that social presence prevents contagious yawning, may be because of stigma of yawning in social setting or its perception as rudeness or boredom in many cultures.
In the study, UBC researchers tried to bring about contagious yawning in virtual reality environment; they made the study participants wear an immersive headsets and exposed them to videos of people yawning. The team found that the rate of contagious yawning was around 38% which is in line with normal real-life rate of 30-60%.
In another experiment, the team introduced social presence in the VR environment, but it had little effect on the study participants’ yawning. They yawned at a same rate, even while being watched by a virtual human form or a virtual webcam. Although the stimuli that trigger contagious yawns in actual reality did the same in VR, stimuli that suppress yawns in real life, the researchers said.
The presence of an actual human being in the real environment has a more significant effect on yawning compared to VR environment. Even though the participants could see or hear the researchers in the testing room, being aware of their presence was enough to diminish the yawning. It appears that the social cues dominate in actual reality but supersede in virtual reality.
VR has gradually become a research tool in the field of psychology and others, but findings indicate that the researchers may need to account for its limitations.
According to Kingstone, using VR to explore how humans behave and think in real life may lead to conclusions that are fundamentally wrong. This has profound implications for those who hope to use the technology to make accurate projections about future behaviors, he added.
If the gap between real world and VR could be closed, researchers will be able to evaluate the link between the brain, behavior, and human experience in both actual and altered realities, the study reported.