The Conformity Stigma: Is Our Virtual Behaviour Impacting the Way We Really Behave?
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One of the most exciting technologies of our time, virtual reality refers to a wholly simulated reality, which is made by computer systems using digital formats. The use of VR in our daily lives has had a remarkable social and psychological impact, including our perceptions about family, religion, private experiences etc. There is no doubt that VR places many impulses within the reach of instant virtual gratification, with no immediate political, social or legal consequences. Indeed, there is no ‘law’ or ‘order’ in the virtual world and people can live the life the way they want to. But does that also impact the way we behave or interact in the real world?
With digital representations of humans, the notion of a doppelgänger has suddenly become nonfiction. For instance, in new editions of FIFA- a worldwide famous football video game, players can upload their photographs to the face of a character. Subsequently, via game controllers, players can make their virtual clones and live the life of sports stars, experience wonderful events etc.
Psychological theories suggest that there are certain consequences on people after encountering their virtual doubles. As per the classic ‘social learning theory’ developed byAlbert Bandura in the late 1970s, people usually imitate behaviours they see others perform. For instance, an adolescent may learn the conduct of the group of friends he likes to hang out with. In fact, researchers have demonstrated that the more similar the target is to the observer, the more likely the observer is to mimic that target. People are more likely to emulate the behaviours of others who belong to the same sex, race, age or those who share their opinions together. Further, in virtual reality, just seeing oneself performing some action can have a huge impact in changing one’s behaviour and memory. Given that virtual behaviour is controlled by computer programmers and animators, the consequences can be dreadful.
In the famous TV series ‘Black Mirror’, there are a number of episodes that deal with such psychological consequences of virtual reality. A particularly recent episode talks about a time when people are more characterized by their virtual ‘avatar’ and the ratings that they receive from others, much akin to the rating that you give to your Uber driver after completing the journey. Imagine a future in which thousands of experiences, day after day, occur virtually. Think about the first minutes after waking from a particularly resonant dream or that first palpitation of awkwardness in an exchange with a person you dreamed about the night before. Whether exercising and losing weightor watching ourselves endorse products in virtual reality, the remarkable capacity of this technology to alter our own perceptions and beliefs about ourselves makes ‘virtual reality’ more real than ‘reality’ itself.
There is no doubt about the fact that our generation has become highly conscious about ourselves. For instance, obesity is arguably one of the most significant problems facing the health of the population of the United States. In the United States, losing weight is one of the most sought-after goals, but also one of the most difficult to achieve. In virtual reality, however, weight loss is as easy as a keystroke. In a world where everyone is beautiful, can we see any psychological effects associated with it?
In a virtual world, where perfect bodies are not only free but the norm, the psychological consequences of being a physical outcast are aggravated to a great extent. For instance, a virtually ‘obese’ avatar may have remarkable effects on your perception and alter the way you perceive yourself. This idea of virtual identity can also be extended to race, though the concept of virtual race is a tricky one. In a research conducted by psychologists, when white people were assigned ‘black’ avatars in order to reduce racial discrimination by allowing them to walk in the shoes of a ‘black’ person, researchers found exactly the opposite, with an increased measure of racism amongst subjects of the study.
In sum, virtual worlds offer an unprecedented opportunity to separate people from their physical identity and to role-play in a variety of manners. However, the role-playing is not ‘free’ and actually has consequences not only with regard to online behaviour but also for behaviours carried over into the physical world.
The development of human behaviour is a result of thousands of years of staged evolution with certain rules remaining fundamental throughout our history. For instance, we discussed earlier the far-reaching effects of instant gratification in virtual reality. However, the continued impact of such gratification may alter tolerance of people while experiencing delayed gratification in the real world. Research shows that violent experiences in the virtual world may lead to increased aggressive behaviour in the real world too. Further, the rise of ‘virtual pornography’ to fulfil sexual desires may also lead to negative social effects, such as disinhibition, marital fidelity, desensitization, false expectations etc. Worse, it could also result in deterioration of social relationships in reality.
Thus, it is necessary to appreciate the massive psychosocial impact that VR has on our social lives. Though the technology promises a better future, it also carries with it some side effects. Social scientists, legislative experts and engineers must, therefore, give due consideration and implement countermeasures. Some solutions may include user licensing, software upgrades etc. However, the impact VR can have on real lives must not be taken for granted in any case.