Virtual Reality vs. (Actual) Reality: Your Mind’s View of Reality Isn’t Often “Real”

Birthmarked Avatar

We’ve verified this in more than a dozen neurophysiological experiments conducted in the Social Psychophysiology Lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Our experiments involved two people, each explaining via a short speech why he or she is a good friend to others and then playing a cooperative word-finding game with each other. In one of many such scenarios, we employed experimental confederates, half of whom had been randomly assigned to “wear” a facial “port wine” birthmark (unaware of whether they had it or not, as either transparent or opaque makeup were used on all confederates).


To make a long story short, dyadic interactions between a stigmatized person (via a facial birthmark, race, low socioeconomic status, etc.) and one who is not is threatening for both individuals. Using sophisticated cardiovascular assessment techniques, we observed patterns of heart rate, ventricular contractility, blood flow, and systemic vascular resistance that provide a validated neurophysiological index of threat continuously during the speech and game. Nonstigmatized participants, while giving their speech and playing the word-finding game with the stigmatized other (confederate) exhibited the cardiovascular threat pattern — increased heart rate and ventricular contractility, and vascular resistance and decreased blood flow — while those interacting with the nonstigmatized other exhibited the so-called “challenge” or nonthreat pattern — increased heart rate and ventricular contractility, but decreased vascular resistance and increased blood flow.

Not surprisingly, participants’ self-reports about the interaction during the speech and the game not only didn’t agree with the physiological data but contradicted it. Specifically, when asked to rate the other interactant on a number of dimensions such as attractiveness, intelligence, friendliness, etc., participants gave more favorable ratings to the birthmarked other than to the nonbirthmarked other, clearly masking the threatening effects of their interaction. Do the same results hold true in virtual reality? Yes — interacting with a birthmarked avatar of a person one has never met elicits the cardiovascular threat pattern, but that is somewhat beside the point here. More importantly, we wondered whether the threatening effects of stigmatized individuals in grounded reality could be overcome in virtual reality, and vice versa.

Consequently, we conducted an experiment in which a naive participant met a nonbirthmarked or birthmarked individual face-to-face in physical reality, exchanged pleasantries, and then entered an immersive virtual world with a digital representation — an avatar — of the confederate who did or did not bear the birthmark, independently of whether the confederate bore it in grounded reality (a classic “2 x 2” experimental design). We reasoned that if the neurophysiological processes underlying the threat response were “bottom-up” — that is, requiring no awareness — then participants should be threatened only if the avatar bore the birthmark, irrespective of whether the actual person bore it. On the other hand, if awareness was required, then participants should be threatened only if the actual person bore the birthmark.

As often happens in science, our results did not exactly match our hypotheses, but as sometimes happens, they proved much more interesting. During the first minute of the word-finding game in virtual reality, participants were threatened only if their partner had the birthmark in grounded reality. But by the fourth minute, they were threatened only if their partner’s avatar had the birthmark in virtual reality. In other words, a sort of phase transition occurred during which participants became more and more immersed in the virtual world — immersion strong enough to counter even conscious knowledge of the social status, stigmatized or not, based on grounded reality. The average phase transition was about three minutes, but there were individual differences in its duration on the part of participants; some became immersed more quickly, some less quickly.


This experiment is important because it provides an empirical model that can help answer a host of philosophical and scientific questions about the similarity of mind-brain processes in physical and virtual worlds. The paradigm we created and the results we stumbled upon can provide a useful independent and continuous neurophysiological index for brain researchers. Specifically, the stigma-VR paradigm together with cardiovascular threat indexes can be used to demarcate phase-transition periods between psychological immersion in physical reality and subsequent immersion in virtual reality, and can be paired with concurrent neuroimaging techniques. In doing so, scientists can observe brain mechanisms involved in psychological transitioning between grounded and exogenously facilitated virtual reality. Such research could bring our understanding of the neural bases of consciousness an important step further.

Jim Blascovich, Ph.D., is the director of the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a visiting scholar at the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

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