Would experiencing a day in the life of a cow make you less likely to eat meat? How would chopping down a tree affect your paper usage? These are questions that the National Science Foundation awarded universities $748,000 dollars to use virtual reality to answer.

“If somebody becomes an animal, do they gain empathy for that animal and think about its plight?” asked Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “In this case, empathy toward the animal also coincides with an environmental benefit, which is that [not eating] animals consumes less energy.”

Bailenson is heading research at Stanford in which participants don virtual reality helmets and walk on their hands and feet. They are then able to see themselves as a cow in a virtual mirror. They experience what a cow does on its way to being slaughtered and then record what they eat for the next week to see if being a cow reduced meat consumption.

This is just one experiment Bailenson is conducting, but all his experiments are tailored to finding new ways to encourage environmental conservation.

E&E News reports: “Volunteers also have virtually chopped down a tree, a study aimed at examining attitudes toward paper use. Others took a virtual reality shower while eating lumps of coal — literally consuming it — to gain insight into how much was needed to heat the water.”

Some researchers argue that virtual reality can alter people’s behavior and change their attitudes with respect to environmental issues like global warming.

“It’s just a much more compelling way of getting people to understand the effects of their behavior now on the future,” Tim Herron of the Decision Theatre lab at the University of British Columbia. “It’s about visualizing the data for people. Once people can see it, it’s amazing how much it changes things. People begin to really understand the necessity to make some changes now to prevent these sort of things.”

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