Nonprofit journalism dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Reality Is Too Confining

October 24, 2014

We know that nature experiences can change environmental behavior—but it turns out those experiences don’t have to be real.

By Amy Westervelt

A woman peers through goggles embedded in a large black helmet. Forest sounds emanate from various corners of the room: a bird chirping here, a breeze whispering there. She moves slowly around the room. On the wall, a flat digital forest is projected so observers can get a rough idea of her surroundings; but in her mind’s eye, this undergrad is no longer pacing a small, cramped room in a university lab. Thanks to that black helmet, she’s walking through the woods.

In a minute, she’s handed a joystick that looks and vibrates like a chainsaw, and she’s asked to cut down a tree. As she completes the task, she feels the same sort of resistance she might feel if she were cutting down a real tree. When she leaves this forest and re-enters the “real” world, her paper consumption will drop by 20 percent, and she will show a measurable preference for recycled paper products. Those effects will continue into the next few weeks, and researchers hypothesize it will be a fairly permanent shift. By comparison, students who watch a video about deforestation or read an article on the subject will show heightened awareness of paper waste throughout that day—but they will return to their baseline behavior by the end of the week.

The tree-cutting study is one of many that Stanford University researchers have conducted in its Virtual Human Interaction Lab over the past several years in an attempt to figure out the extent to which a simulated experience can affect behavior. And it’s part of a growing body of research that suggests virtual experiences may offer a powerful catalyst for otherwise apathetic groups to begin caring about issues and taking action, including on climate change.

That’s important, because even though time spent in nature has been proven to be quite beneficial to human health, whether or not humans repay the favor tends to rely on the type of nature experiences they have in their youth. A 2006 study on the relationship between nature experiences and environmentalism found that while those who had spent their youth in “wild” nature, defined as hiking or playing in the woods, were more likely to be environmentalists as adults, those who had been exposed to “domesticated” nature—defined as visits to parks, picking flowers, planting seeds, or tending to gardens—were not. (1) Given the unlikelihood of every child having a “wild” nature experience, researchers are on the hunt for other ways to cultivate environmentally responsible behavior.

The latest work with virtual reality builds upon roughly half a century of behavioral studies indicating that humans’ willingness to shift behavior is directly correlated to our sense of control. Climate change, like many large-scale environmental issues, is a problem which few people feel they have a direct impact on—for better or worse.

Jeremy Bailenson, a cognitive psychologist and founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, sees particular value in virtual reality related to climate change because it allows for a combination of real experience with boundless possibilities: the brain treats the virtual experience as real but, at the same time, knows that anything is possible in the simulation. “One can viscerally experience disparate futures and get firsthand experience about the consequences of human behavior,” Bailenson said.

And it doesn’t always require expensive headgear. A team at Harvard recently launched EcoMUVE, a desktop computer–based virtual pond ecosystem. It’s designed to teach students basic biological processes such as photosynthesis and decomposition. The Harvard team also launched EcoMOBILE, a corresponding augmented reality app which enables students to take the EcoMUVE experience with them. For example, teachers take kids to a nearby pond and use EcoMOBILE to show them how the town dumped garbage there 60 years ago and nearly filled in what is today a pristine, natural pond. The app shows them how plants around the pond are turning sunlight into energy and reveals what microscopic pond life is doing under the water’s surface. It also walks them through the real-world collection of water samples, which it helps them to analyze.

A handful of Massachusetts high schools have also tested an MIT-developed augmented reality app called Time Lapse 2100. With the app, users set various policies that affect the environment, and then the program shows them what would happen if those policies were implemented.

Back at the Stanford lab, researchers are also testing their sea legs. In their Coral Reef virtual reality game, players become a tall piece of purple coral off the coast of Italy, near Ischia. Over the course of a 14-minute lesson, they are taken through the experience of being coral in an acidifying ocean. At first, the surrounding ocean is filled with an abundance of sea life. Waves around the reef are simulated by floor vibrations and ocean sounds. A lab technician periodically touches the participants with a stick in synchronized motions to coincide with what they see as a fishing net hitting the reef. Then acidification sets in. Sea life begins to die off all around. The reef begins to lose its color, as does the piece of coral the participants have become.

Bailenson and his team have tested the simulation with college students. They followed the participants over weeks and compared them with a group that had simply watched a video about how ocean acidification affects coral reefs. The team found that the virtual reality experience catalyzed a longer-lasting change in attitude than any shifts stirred by the video.


Amy Westervelt, an environmental journalist living in Truckee, California, is a cofounder of reporting project Climate Confidential. Amy’s work has been published most recently in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and the Guardian.

1. Wells, N.M. and K.S. Lekies. 2006. Children, Youth and Environments 16(1):1–24.

This story was adapted from an article produced by Climate Confidential and released for re-use under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

What to Read Next