Virtual reality (VR) can be extraordinarily life-like, but new UBC research explored the gap between real-life and virtual reality behaviour, with a key focus on yawning.
Including researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada, along with Andrew Gallup from State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, USA, the study used virtual reality to examine the neurological factors that influence yawning, focusing specifically on contagious yawning.
Contagious yawning is a well-documented phenomenon in which individuals, and some non-human animals, yawn reflexively when they detect a yawn nearby.
Virtual reality behaviour vs real-life behaviour
Professor Alan Kingstone, department of psychology, UBC and the study’s senior author explains: “People expect VR experiences to mimic actual reality and thus induce similar forms of thought and behaviour.
“This study shows that there’s a big separation between being in the real world and being in a VR world.”
Previous, research has shown that ‘social presence’ deters contagious yawning. When individuals believe they are being watched, they yawn less, or at least resist the urge. This may be due to the stigma of yawning in social settings, or the perception in many cultures that it is a sign of boredom or rudeness.
Virtual reality yawning
The research team tried to bring about contagious yawning in a VR environment. They had test subjects wear an immersive headset and exposed them to videos of people yawning.
In those conditions, the rate of contagious yawning was 38%, which is in line with the typical real-life rate of 30-60%.
However, when the researchers introduced social presence in the virtual environment, they were surprised to find it had little effect on subjects’ yawning. Subjects yawned at the same rate, even while being watched by a virtual human avatar or a virtual webcam.
It was an interesting paradox: stimuli that trigger contagious yawns in real life did the same in virtual reality, but stimuli that suppress yawns in real life did not.
Presence of real people have more effect
The presence of an actual person in the testing room had a more significant effect on yawning than anything in the VR environment. Even though subjects couldn’t see or hear their company, simply knowing a researcher was present was enough to diminish their yawning.
Social cues in actual reality appeared to dominate and supersede those in virtual reality.
“Using VR to examine how people think and behave in real life may very well lead to conclusions that are fundamentally wrong. This has profound implications for people who hope to use VR to make accurate projections regarding future behaviours,” said Kingstone.
“For example, predicting how pedestrians will behave when walking amongst driverless cars, or the decisions that pilots will make in an emergency situation. Experiences in VR may be a poor proxy for real life.”