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Virtual Reality an ‘Effective Tool’ To Force Consumer Behavior Change: Study

Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: April 26, 2022
A recent study found that virtual reality venues are an effective tool for forcing behavior changes in consumers.
An Iranian woman is attached to a VR headset at an exhibition on April 24, 2022. A recent examination of more than a thousand peer reviewed studies found evidence that virtual reality environments are an effective tool to force consumer behavior changes. (Image: ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Virtual reality environments are capable of playing the role of forcing consumer behavior changes, shows a recent systematic literature review of more than a thousand peer reviewed studies. 

The findings are notable in light of the recent normalization of VR-based online social environments, most prominently seen through the transformation of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook from a social media and data tracking company into the Metaverse. 

In October of 2021, Zuckerberg told investors during an analyst call that Meta was all-in on virtual reality, “This is not an investment that is going to be profitable for us any time in the near future…But we basically believe that the metaverse is going to be the successor to the mobile internet.”

SOCIAL CREDIT AND THE TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION

And Zuckerberg isn’t alone in his fantasy. In a December of 2021 corporate news piece, China-headquartered Lenovo lauded the Metaverse as the “next big wave of computing” where “large numbers of people” are arranged to “come together to work, play, and socialize.”

Study format

In a 2021 systematic literature review study by Dutch scientists published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior Reports, researchers from Wageningen University in the Hague sought to examine how the advancements in virtual reality technology—such as those that now allow venues such as Zuckerberg’s Metaverse to debut before a wider audience—have integrated into the social sciences and consumer research. 

To investigate, the team, citing a rapidly developing technological landscape, focused only on peer reviewed papers published in the last five years.

Additionally, researchers limited their search parameters to studies that utilized an experimental design format, such as a randomized control trial, and that specifically weighed a behavioral change, like changes and frequency in purchasing or donation amounts, rather than self-reported feelings or attitudes, as an outcome.

This approach resulted in 1,152 total articles, and were further neutered to exclude those that specifically focused on children or involved specific targets, such as seriously ill people.

SOCIETY COLLAPSE AND FOOD CRISIS

Additionally, medical, nutritional, and clinical-type studies were eliminated from the running, focusing only on studies that utilized an expected form of monetary expenditure as a behavioral measure.

This layer of filter reduced the number of articles to only 136. 

Next, the team utilized two researchers who personally and separately read each paper’s abstract, eliminating all but 43 from contention. With the 43 remaining studies, the pair were tasked with reading the full papers, leaving a final selection of only 24 for final examination.

The paper ultimately and conclusively found, “All studies that used VR as a tool to steer consumer behaviour in a desired direction were effective in changing at least one of the target behaviours.”

Test subjects acted similarly in VR to real life

The team broke its findings of the 24 papers down into several categories.

In one data point, they noted that nine studies compared behavioral outcomes between a VR study and a non-VR study, finding in six of nine that “outcomes were similar” between the two, “indicating that findings from a non-VR online or real-life, physical setting can often be replicated in a VR setting.”

The remaining three were notably not completely negative, and were instead characterized as having “mixed findings.”

In seven of the 24 papers, the focus of the study was on food, specifically comparing between a VR setting and an “equivalent, real-life study.” Results came back that four of seven “replicated the findings from the real-life study when conducting the same study in VR.”

The remaining three “found differences in part of the targeted behavioural outcomes.”

Specifically, one of the studies exposed 11 test subjects to both a real buffet and a buffet in a VR world, finding “a high correlation between the total number of calories selected of all food items selected” in both test runs. 

An additional study used a fake buffet in real life instead of a real buffet, still finding a similar conclusion. 

Two other studies utilized VR to have participants choose cereals and found that the “frequency with which participants looked at nutrition information on the cereal boxes” was the same between the human world and the computerized illusion.

The importance of immersion

“Overall, studies show that when consumers are in an environment with a higher degree of immersiveness, this has the potential to affect their behaviour to a greater extent relative to less immersive environments,” read the findings.

They added, “The more immersive the VR context is, the more effective interventions typically become in the extent to which behaviour change is realized,” characterizing VR further as proven to be “an effective tool to support behaviour change in a variety of consumer domains, such as food, clothing and tourism.” 

Specifically, two studies were noted that emphasized the importance of an immersive and realistic experience in using virtual reality to force consumer behavioral changes. 

The first looked at to what extent subjects experienced “telepresence,” which the study elucidated as “the subjective experience of actually being in a certain environment,” in a virtual environment selling clothing.

“Indeed there was a high correlation between telepresence, in their study measured as perceiving to actually be in a retail store, and participants’ purchase intention of clothing from the store,” the team found in their summary analysis of the article. 

A second study examined whether subjects were likely to want to visit a certain tourist destination after being exposed to a virtual reality video of the destination.

The results came back that 22 of 23 participants expressed that they developed an intent to visit the destination, with the majority also stating they “experience[d] a general feeling of immersion.”

“More interactive VR environments can potentially lead to greater changes in consumer behaviour,” researchers asserted.

Behavioral changes confirmed

Of the 24 papers, 16 were focused on using virtual reality in a consumer setting. Roughly half focused on responses from a student demographic, while the other focused on a “general public sample.”

Four focused on food, four took aim at “altruistic or pro-environmental action,” three examined consumer purchasing, and three targeted tourism.

In one study focusing on chocolate, one set of participants were shown a “virtual disgust cue” under the effect of a VR headset, compared against a control group that was not.

The study expectedly found that afterwards, fewer participants exposed to the disgust cue consumed the physical chocolate.

In another study, participants were delivered “feedback” in the form of punitive messaging as whether intention to consume water in a VR environment could be modified was examined.

Researchers found that participants who were dosed with messaging on the negative consequences of water consumption “had the biggest change in behavioural intention for water conservation” when compared against a second group who were only dosed with messaging on negative impact to the environment in general.

In a third example, overweight mothers were placed in a virtual buffet environment and delivered messaging about both childhood obesity risk and personalized family risk.

Results showed that only when messaging of both sets of risk were delivered simultaneously did caloric intake from the selected virtual foods differ from the control group who was not inundated with messaging.

A potentially short life span

The team cautioned, however, that findings presented in the papers analyzed were potentially caused by the novelty of virtual reality, and may not be able to persist in the long term.

In a discussion on limitations of their findings, the Wageningen researchers noted that “further caution might be warranted when viewing the results regarding the effectiveness of VR as a behaviour change tool, because of the novelty of VR for study participants.” 

One study included in the analysis, the team noted, “Speculated that the mere novelty of VR can already have an effect in itself on behaviour.” 

“This would imply that once consumers have been in a VR environment more often, it is possible that in some instances VR as a behaviour change tool becomes less effective.”