This is what climate change looks like in vr – info gadgets

The VR demonstration, called The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience, is the brainchild of Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communications at Stanford University and the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. His project is the latest to demonstrate a new and potentially powerful new use for virtual reality — one that has little to do with entertainment. Bailenson wants to harness VR to address social problems and change human behavior.

Bailenson, who has a PhD in cognitive psychology, came to realize one of the main reasons we fail to act on social problems is that we tend to blame individuals for their problems, not any situation or social condition. In social psychology, blaming an individual is known as “the fundamental attribution error.” When bad things happen to them, it’s their fault.


When bad things happen to us, it’s not ours. We lose sight of ourselves in the social fabric. In recent years, however, research has shown that granting somebody the perspective of another person can reduce the fundamental attribution error — seeing the world through another’s eyes can make us less quick to judge them.

Lee Ross, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who coined the term “fundamental attribution error,” is impressed by Bailenson’s attempts to change people’s minds with virtual reality. “What virtual reality does is lets you fully appreciate what a situation is like from the viewpoint of an actor,” Ross says. He says that VR could very well help people see there’s more to social problems than another person’s troubles, and even spur people to action. “I think virtual reality could have a very powerful effect,” Ross says.

To show how the fundamental attribution error might be overcome, Bailenson created a VR film that makes you homeless. You lose your job, get evicted, live in your car, get rousted by cops, and end up sleeping in a bus. Another of his VR experiences, designed with collaborators at Columbia University, allows you to walk in the shoes of an African American. You are singled out and yelled at by your first-grade teacher in a predominantly white classroom; confronted, as an adolescent, by police at gunpoint on your way to your basketball game and forced to kneel on the sidewalk in front of your house; and then, as a young Yale grad, get passed over for a job for a less qualified white applicant.

In his focus on the environment, Bailenson has taken aim at what he calls the “knowledge-action gap.” People may be knowledgeable about a subject, he says, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to action. “It’s easy to get people to say they want to be green, but it’s really hard to get them to sort their trash or take UberPool instead of UberX,” Bailenson says. “When you try to get people to change daily behaviors, it’s ridiculously hard.”

One of his first efforts was inspired by a New York Times article that detailed how the rising popularity of soft, fluffy toilet paper in the United States was leading to the death of millions of trees, including old-growth forests in Canada. Though many professed concerns over climate change, only 2 percent of Americans used toilet paper made from recycled material, the article noted.

One of Bailenson’s graduate students constructed a beautiful virtual forest, with towering trees and chirping birds. Then she placed a virtual chainsaw in viewers’ hands and had them cut down a giant sequoia tree. After the tree smashed to the ground, they were instructed to walk around and examine the damage. The forest was quieted — the chirping birds had all been scared off by the noise.

After the subjects removed the goggles, they were told that using nonrecycled toilet paper would lead to the death of two such trees throughout their lifetime. Then, as the subjects walked by, the graduate student knocked over a glass of water, as if by accident, and asked them to help her clean up the spill. Those who had undergone the virtual simulation used 20 percent less napkins than those who had only read a description of trees being cut. A week later, subjects who had done the virtual simulation were also found to have been far more likely to have changed their recycling habits than those who had not.

For two decades, Adam Galinksy, a professor at Columbia Business School, has studied the effects of adopting another person’s point of view. His experiments have shown that “perspective-taking” can defuse racial biases and build harmony in fractious groups. He says virtual reality represents a significant step forward in fostering new vantage points. “People are very much anchored in their perspectives, and what virtual reality can do is unanchor them and allow them to experience a new way of thinking,” Galinsky says. “It really can move people in a new direction.”