VR More Effective Than Video in Evoking Fear, Encouraging Climate Action, Penn State Study Finds

A team of researchers at Penn State University has found that virtual reality (VR) is a more effective medium than traditional video for delivering climate change messages that evoke fear and encourage people to support environmental policies.

The study, published in the journal Science Communication, examined how VR and message framing affect the impact of environmental advocacy communications. The researchers analyzed how individuals responded to climate change messaging presented through video and desktop VR – VR programs compatible with mobile phones and computers, like Google Earth.

Their findings revealed that messages framed around loss – those transitioning from a positive to negative climate scenario to emphasize what humanity stands to lose – were more successful in driving support for environmental policies when delivered via VR. Conversely, gain-framed messages, depicting a more hopeful transformation from a negative to positive environmental outcome, had a greater impact when presented in a traditional video format.

"The study suggests that the most effective way to promote environmental advocacy messages depends on a combination of the medium used and the message itself," explained S. Shyam Sundar, senior author of the study and the James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects at Penn State. "For viewers, the key takeaway is that VR presentations of advocacy messages can be much more emotionally impactful, especially when the message focuses on potential losses."

The research team created two VR experiences – one loss-framed and one gain-framed – using the Unity3D game engine. These VR programs showcased healthy and degraded coral reef ecosystems, accompanied by contrasting lighting and audio to evoke positive or negative emotions. Participants were allowed to explore these aquatic environments virtually.

The researchers also produced video recordings based on the VR experiences to capture the loss- and gain-framed messages. Coral reefs were chosen as the subject matter due to their critical vulnerability to climate change and their distance from most people's everyday experiences.

"Communicating environmental issues to non-scientists is challenging because the consequences often unfold over extended periods and are not readily apparent," said Mengqi Liao, the study's first author and a doctoral candidate in mass communication at Penn State. "Furthermore, bringing people to witness environments damaged by climate change, like coral reefs, is typically impractical. VR provides a solution – it can transport people to these environments and illustrate the potential consequences of inaction."

For the study, 130 participants were recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk. They completed a pre-survey to gauge their existing attitudes towards climate change and political ideology. Subsequently, they were randomly assigned to experience either the video or desktop VR presentation. Within each group, half viewed the gain-framed message, while the other half saw the loss-framed message.

The loss-framed VR experiences showcased healthy coral reefs followed by degraded ones, accompanied by messages explaining the negative repercussions of failing to adopt climate change mitigation measures. The gain-framed versions depicted mostly degraded coral reefs followed by a restoration, with messages highlighting the positive impacts of implementing climate policies. Following the experiences, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their likelihood of supporting environmental policies.

The results indicated that loss-framed messages delivered through VR were most effective in motivating people to support climate change mitigation policies. Conversely, gain-framed messages were more impactful when presented in video format.

According to Sundar, VR's inherent intrigue and ease of use – even young children with limited reading skills can navigate it – contribute to its effectiveness. "VR is often called an 'empathy machine' because it fosters a strong sense of connection with the environment," he explained. "Loss-framed messages, which often evoke emotions like fear rather than hope, can be more powerfully conveyed through visually immersive media like VR."

Gain-framed messages, on the other hand, tend to involve more cognitive processing of the environmental consequences of action or inaction and the potential benefits for humanity. Sundar suggests that the movement and interactivity inherent to VR may be distracting for the type of contemplation required to fully grasp the potential gains emphasized in such messaging, making traditional video or text formats a better fit.

"When dealing with politicized issues like climate change, people often engage in 'motivated reasoning,' where they readily accept information that aligns with their existing beliefs while rejecting information that contradicts them," said Liao. "Our study suggests that presenting stark portrayals of environmental loss can be persuasive in driving people to take action on climate change issues, regardless of their pre-existing viewpoints."

Pejman Sajjadi, who contributed to the research as a postdoctoral scholar at Penn State and currently works at Meta, was also involved in the study.

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