We already know of the effects immersive virtual reality can have on our identity and social interactions. As I’ve mentioned before, embodying an avatar with certain characteristics can cause you to ‘incorporate’ (a very appropriate word in this context) these same characteristics, or even change your implicit views on the type of person you’ve inhabited.
Examples are experiments in which people became more helpful in real life after experiencing a game from the perspective of superman (an effect that might be partially due to priming, although it was much less pronounced when people merely watched other play the game). Several studies also show that experiencing a body-ownership illusion (such as the rubber hand illusion or a more high-tech version in immersive virtual reality) of an avatar with a different skin-color reduces implicit racial bias immediately afterwards. Another interesting effect was found when people described themselves with more childish characteristics after experiencing the virtual perspective of a child.
In short, these virtual experiences can change the way people behave towards others, think about others, and how they think about themselves.
Quite recently, researchers started using this virtual point-of-view gun to allow us to interact with ourselves in a social scenario. The practice has existed for years in Gestalt therapy – the ‘empty chair technique’, a conversation with yourself (or an imaginary other). Although a very beneficial form of therapy, the low-tech version asks a lot of imagination from its participants and may prohibit real communication in certain cases. An example of this is when patients with anxiety and/or depression are asked to imagine talking compassionately to themselves – many of these patients feel that they do not deserve compassion or are otherwise unable to comply.
However, asking these patients to express compassion to a virtual child-character (while located in a virtual clone of their own bodies), and then replaying the scene from the point of view of the child, might help them overcome this obstacle and relieve excessive self-criticism.
Similarly, people can ‘talk with themselves’ about a problem, basically receiving self-counseling. In an interesting merge of self-to-self and self-as-other research, a recent study examined the differences between two such self-counseling sessions. In the first, the participant had two virtual bodies, both similar in appearance to their own, real one. The participant then talked with themselves for a while, posing a social problem, switching bodies and listening to the problem, giving advice, and switching bodies again to listen to their own advice. The interesting manipulation was that the second group did exactly the same thing – but the advice-giving body looked like Sigmund Freud. This superficial difference of inhabiting a body that looked like a psychology-expert caused people to give themselves better advice.
What does this mean? Perhaps immersive virtual reality makes it easier for us to tap into a different aspect of our personality and circumvent habitual ways of thinking. Everyone might be familiar with the concept of different personality-aspects – who you are differs subtly between different circumstances, such as your professional vs. your personal life. It might be a mix of the expectations of others (how do people expect me to act?) and those of yourself (who am I / what is my role in this situation?). And appearance matters – many people who work from home will tell you that dressing professionally in the morning (even if it’s just for the cat) will help you get more work done.
The question remains how deep the well of empathy is – better at physics when looking like Einstein, sure, but how do we feel about being better at drumming when inhabiting a casually dressed, dark-skinned body? (As was also recently demonstrated.) That might edge towards stereotyping. Similarly, experiencing life in elderly bodies (as is already done in the design world and is now picked up to train health care practitioners communication skills) might be useful, but where do actual concerns change into expectations and assumptions? Will temporarily living in the body of a different gender lead to illuminating insights, or will it just reinforce stereotypes? (‘Let’s make it pink!’ instead of a serious consideration of needs.) Experiencing a body in this way – as identity tourism – brings with it a dangerous limitation: we might misunderstand our assumptions as legitimate considerations, deriving from the experienced body instead of our own subconscious mind.