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13-09-2019 | Original Article

Behavioral realism and lifelike psychophysiological responses in virtual reality by the example of a height exposure

Psychological Research
Joanna Kisker, Thomas Gruber, Benjamin Schöne
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The online version of this article (https://​doi.​org/​10.​1007/​s00426-019-01244-9) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

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Virtual reality (VR) is increasingly gaining importance as a valuable methodical tool for psychological research. The greatest benefit of using VR is generating rich, complex and vivid, but still highly controllable settings. As VR has been found to elicit lifelike psychophysiological and emotional responses, we examined by means of a height exposure whether VR resembles physical reality to the necessary degree to constitute a suitable framework for investigating real-life behavior in a controlled experimental context. As hypothesized, participants behaved in VR exactly as would be appropriate in a real environment: Being exposed to great height, participants walked significantly slower across a virtual steel girder construction protruding from a high-rise building as compared to participants who traversed the very same construction on the ground level. In the height condition, this realistic behavior could be predicted on basis of the participants’ trait anxiety. Aligned with the behavioral responses, they showed realistic psychophysiological responses, i.e., an elevated heart rate when exposed to height. Interestingly, participants of the height condition reported a greater sense of presence, which indicates that emotions have an elevating effect on presence. As a conclusion, our findings provide further evidence that VR evokes lifelike responses at both behavioral and psychophysiological level and therefore increases ecological validity of psychological experiments.

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