Man wearing virtual reality headset

Thinking and behaviour differs in virtual reality and real life, study claims

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During a study on the psychological responses to contagious yawning, researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) found a yawning gap between how people respond to the natural phenomenon in virtual reality (VR) and how they react in real life.

The purpose of the study by UBC was to examine factors that influence yawning, focusing on contagious yawning, a well-documented phenomenon in which people respond reflexively when they detect a yawn within their presence.

“People expect VR experiences to mimic actual reality and thus induce similar forms of thought and behaviour,” said Alan Kingstone, a professor in UBC’s department of psychology and the study’s senior author. “This study shows that there's a big separation between being in the real world and being in a VR world.”

Previous research has shown that ‘social presence’ deters contagious yawning, with people yawning less or resisting the urge to yawn when they believe they are being watched.

Collaborating with Andrew Gallup from State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, the team from UBC tried to bring about contagious yawning in a VR environment, with participants in the study wearing an immersive headset and being exposed to videos of people yawning.

A study participant is exposed to yawning in virtual reality while a UBC researcher records observations

A study participant is exposed to yawning in virtual reality while a UBC researcher records observations - Nicola Anderson/UBC

Image credit: Nicola Anderson/UBC

Results showed that in those conditions, the rate of contagious yawning was 38 per cent, comparable to the average real-life rate of 30-60 per cent.

However when researchers introduced social presence in the virtual environment they found it had little effect, with the subjects yawning at the same rate, even while being watched by a virtual human avatar or a virtual webcam.

Inside the headsets, participants were exposed to yawning while a virtual avatar kept watch

Inside the headsets, participants were exposed to yawning while a virtual avatar kept watch - Nicola Anderson/UBC

Image credit: Nicola Anderson/UBC

Researchers doing the study described the observations as an “interesting paradox”, saying that stimuli that trigger contagious yawns in real life did the same in virtual reality, but stimuli that suppress yawns in real life did not.

The presence of an actual person in the testing room had a more significant effect on yawning than anything in the VR environment. Even though subjects couldn’t see or hear their company, knowing a researcher was present was enough to diminish their yawning.

Virtual reality has increasingly become a research tool in psychology and other fields, but these findings show that researchers need to account for its limitations.

“Using VR to examine how people think and behave in real life may very well lead to conclusions that are fundamentally wrong. This has profound implications for people who hope to use VR to make accurate projections regarding future behaviours,” said Kingstone. “For example, predicting how pedestrians will behave when walking among driverless cars, or the decisions that pilots will make in an emergency situation. Experiences in VR may be a poor proxy for real life.”

Kingstone also added that if the gap between VR and real life could be closed, scientists would be able to examine the link between the brain, behaviour, and the human experience in both actual reality and altered realities that span place and time.

Last November, a global team of computer scientists developed a novel algorithm that enables physical objects to be replicated for the virtual-reality space by using a point-and-shoot camera with a flash.

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