The researchers explored if exposure to a weakened threat to the relationship, in the form of flirting with a virtual character, would help immunize people against real-world temptations that could threaten the security of their romantic relationship in three trials. In this context, it is predicted that exposure to a weaker threat will make people conscious of their commitments to their existing partners and prepare them to deal with a more significant threat to their relationship. As a result, the researchers expected that exposure to a seductive virtual avatar would raise people’s drive to safeguard their current connection, resulting in increased desire for their current partner and perception of alternative partners as less sexually appealing.
In all three tests, participants in monogamous relationships put on virtual reality (VR) glasses and ‘visited’ a bar to test the research hypothesis. They talked with a virtual bartender who was the same gender as their spouse. In the experimental condition, the bartender avatar flirted with the subjects, while in the control condition, he acted neutrally towards them. Following that, each participant met with a real person. At the end of the session, participants were asked to report their feelings and impressions, both during the virtual bartender conversation and the real-world engagement.
In the first experiment, an attractive interviewer immediately after the interaction with the virtual bartender queried the participants about their thoughts on numerous interpersonal issues. The interviewer followed a script, asking questions like, ‘Should people play ‘hard-to-get’ during the beginning of a relationship?’ The interviewers had been trained in advance to be friendly and interested in the participants. At the end of the interview, the participants rated the interviewer’s sexual attractiveness. According to the findings, after flirting with the virtual bartender, participants regarded the real interviewer as less sexually appealing than those who had a preliminary interaction with a neutral virtual bartender.
The researchers wanted to see if participants who had interacted with the flirty virtual bartender would not only regard a real person as less sexually desirable but would also decrease their actual interaction with them. For that purpose, after the virtual contact, the participants encountered an attractive stranger who sought their assistance. The experiment focused on assisting since it is a more respectable way of expressing interest in a potential partner than apparent flirtation, especially when participants are in a monogamous relationship.
Specifically, the participants encountered an attractive individual (of the same gender as the participant’s partner) who they mistook for another participant but were a member of the research team. The participant and a member of the research team were asked to sit side by side and construct two five-story pyramids out of plastic cups. When the ‘collaborator’ finished erecting the pyramid’s third storey, he knocked it over, purportedly by mistake, exclaiming, ‘Oh! I’m such a clumsy person! Could you kindly assist me in rebuilding my pyramid?’ A member of the research team measured the amount of time the participants spent assisting to rebuild the pyramid with a stopwatch tucked in their pocket.
Participants who had a preliminary interaction with the sexy virtual bartender spent less time assisting those who had a preliminary interaction with the neutral bartender avatar, as the researchers expected.
The third experiment invited participants to the laboratory with their partners. The couples were divided into separate rooms, with one interacting with the virtual bartender and the other watching a neutral movie. Following the virtual contact, the participants were reunited with their partners and invited to share the pleasurable and irritating parts of their sex life with them. At the end of the session, the participants rated their level of sexual desire for their partner and others.
The results showed that individuals who had a preliminary interaction with the flirty virtual bartender had more sexual desire for their spouse and less sexual interest in other persons than those who had a preliminary interaction with the neutral virtual bartender.
Enabling Stable and Satisfying Relationships With Virtual Reality
Prof. Gurit Birnbaum, Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, Reichman University said, “The findings of the three studies indicate that it is possible to inoculate people and make them more resistant to threats to their romantic relationship. It is the first study in the world to illustrate how a virtual reality interaction can improve real-world relationships. The study shows that a weakened virtual threat, which by definition cannot directly harm the relationship, allows people in a monogamous relationship to prepare ahead of time to deal more effectively with significant threats in the real world. In this way, virtual reality interactions may contribute to people’s ability to maintain stable and satisfying relationships with their actual partners.”
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