Virtual Reality: Elevate Your Research from Mediocrity to Greatness

“You open your eyes and find out the electricity in the building has been cut off. Then, you hear an emergency evacuation message over the public address system: ‘Fire has broken out. Please evacuate the building immediately.’ While the sound of the emergency alarm keeps ringing in your ears, you follow the emergency signs to exit the building. You keep coughing and barely see what is going on beyond the smoke. After a while, you finally see the exit but encounter an injured person, trapped under a huge cabinet, asking for your help. Facing an agonizing dilemma, you feel light-headed and hear your heart pounding.”
Patil, Indrajeet, “Neuroanatomical Basis of Concern-Based Altruism in Virtual Environment”, 2017

What would you do? Risk your own life to rescue the person or continue on your way pretending not to have seen anything?

Profound Insights into Human Nature

What you just experienced through the text is the virtual-environment-based scenario constructed by a team of neuroscientists in Italy to study costly altruism which entails helping others at a cost to self.

Prior work in this field suggests that empathic concern (EC), a feeling of compassion or sympathy towards someone in need, is a primary motivation that drives costly altruism. However, existing research fails to effectively evoke self-relevance and underscore the “costly” aspect of altruism. This team of neuroscientists verifies that virtual reality (VR) with contextually abundant settings possesses a high degree of ecological validity and thus can significantly improve upon extant research.

In the aforementioned virtual environment, by pressing a button 150 times, each participant is able to move away the cabinet and rescue the avatar, one of the four computer-controlled avatars that is said to be controlled by another participant in another place and that each participant previously interacted with in a virtual room before the fire breaks out. In the debriefing session, none of the participants reported that they doubted the fact that the avatars are controlled by computer, manifesting that EC is effectively triggered even in a virtual world.

Not only have the experimenters been able to construct a dilemmatic frame with high ecological validity, but also they have been able to elicit more original and visceral responses by imbuing a sense of presence via VR; the results show that the participants were less likely to demonstrate costly altruism in a virtual setting (65%) than in a hypothetical text-based scenario (91%).

As in this research, VR can provide a mediated yet immersive environment to offer profound insights into human study such as Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience and Behavioral Science. Even more life-changing innovation that VR brings into research is its ability to alter behavior and cognition of an individual.

Cognitive and Behavioral Transformation

In University College London, an interesting psychological research on overcoming excessive self-criticism was conducted in VR. In this experiment, the research team recruited female participants with excessive self-criticism. To begin with, each female participant is instructed to wear a head-tracked head-mounted display and a body-tracking suit so that her virtual body is spatially coincides with her real body. The VR session of the experiment is composed of four stages.

Falconer, Caroline J., “Embodying Compassion: A Virtual Reality Paradigm for Overcoming Excessive Self-Criticism”, 2014

The first stage (Image A) allows each participant to get accustomed to the virtual environment and her virtual body by making gestures, looking around surroundings, and looking at her own avatar in the mirror — all of which are designed to intensify a sense of embodiment.

When each participant enters the second stage, she sees, from the first person perspective of her own avatar, a seated child avatar crying into its hands (Image B). Then, she is instructed to deliver compassionate comments to soothe the crying child. While she calms down the child, the child is programmed to respond accordingly in different stages, from crying into its hands to sitting upright and elevating its head. All the movements and voice coming from each participant are recorded during this stage.

For the third stage, each participant goes through a perspective change: one group experiences the first person perspective (1PP) of the child avatar (Image C) and another group experiences the third person perspective (3PP) facing both her own avatar and the child avatar at a 1-meter distance apart (Image D). Then, each participant is given some time to assimilate to a new perspective.

At the last stage, each participant experiences a real-time replay of her compassion, which she delivered to the child at the second stage, from the child’s perspective (1PP) or from the observer’s perspective (3PP) depending on her group.

It is a seemingly rather complicated experiment, but the result offers some key takeaways for excessive self-criticism. Mere observation and practice of delivering compassionate comments reduced self-criticism, and the additional experience of receiving the compassion and care from one’s own self from the child avatar’s perspective (1PP) boosted more self-compassion and feelings of being safe than when one experienced it from the observer’s perspective (3PP). These key takeaways imply an unlimited potential of VR for treating and studying not only psychological disorders such as phobias and PTSD but also clinically-relevant emotions other than fear and anxiety.

A Bright Future Ahead

Over the last few years, VR industry has put its best foot forward to ramp up VR applications. VR companies have rolled out some decent consumer products — Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream — and have generated enthusiasm among VR adherents. Due to their efforts and advocacy, the concept of VR, which has been considered a distant future, has come to the fore for the public.

Nevertheless, despite of VR hype, VR has been only perceived as a new digital entertainment platform for movies and games. It is not until very recently that VR has received huge attention from many researchers in a variety of fields — a plethora of research and studies leveraging virtual environment have been published and numerous academic conferences have spotlighted VR as the next big milestone. In fact, utilizing VR technology, researchers can design more engaging experiments to obtain new insights into the human body and mind and transform human cognition and behavior to enhance the lives of people. Yes, by all means, VR can render a greater breadth and depth to your research. So what are you waiting for? Embrace VR. Join the bright future ahead.

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Patil, Indrajeet, et al. “Neuroanatomical Basis of Concern-Based Altruism in Virtual Environment.” Neuropsychologia, 2017, doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.02.015.

Falconer, Caroline J., et al. “Embodying Compassion: A Virtual Reality Paradigm for Overcoming Excessive Self-Criticism.” PLoS ONE, vol. 9, no. 11, Dec. 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111933.

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