Impact of VR on what we think and do

VR, AR or MR is already changing the way we think. The experiences, thoughts and emotions we have while using VR for example, keep us engaged long after we take off the headset and return to the real world. Because these experiences in the interactive, virtual world affect us just as much as face-to-face interactions, we feel the same way. VR can trigger emotions and feelings as if you were really physically there. This experiences are such powerful tools for building empathy because it makes little difference in our brains whether we perform an action ourselves or someone else does; the mirror neurons do the same. Our brains can’t tell the difference between real and virtual, which is why both bad and good experiences can have real, emotional effects. It may happen that our brain thinks that we have a different body. This can happen when sensory, visual and perceptual feedback matches. To give an example, it has been discovered that people who had an avatar with lighter or darker skin color while using VR had less racist prejudice after leaving the virtual world. Other advantages of it are, for example, trainings for very dangerous situations, because these virtual experiences trigger real emotional and physical reactions. However, it may be necessary to include real-world elements or constraints to remind the user of the virtual nature of their world or to ground the user over and over again. Should no limitations or assistances be built in and the brain becomes too accustomed to the virtual body, it can cause the user to lose control and make decisions that they would never actually make in the real environment. To prevent the brain from no longer recognizing boundaries, it can help for the user to put on a kind of vest and slip into the avatar’s body or walk across some kind of bridge. The goal, should VR be used for therapies, is for the user to benefit and learn from the scenario and fully embrace the experience as as his or her own.

Because VR can do both good and bad, Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger drafted two lists and recommendations for the research ethics of VR and for the use of VR by the general public. These lists are at least first steps because the extent to which VR impacts us is very complex to understand. And because it is so complex, there is a need to think about ethics.

Super short summary of both lists into one.

  1. No permanent or serious harm should be caused to the subject or user.
  2. Every participant needs to be informed about lasting and serious behavioural impacts resulting from VR and that not every consequence is known.
  3. Media and Researches should be transparent especially when virtual reality is being discussed as medical treatment and they should avoid overstating the benefits of VR.
  4. There must be awareness of dual use, which is when the technology is used for something other than its original intent. „Torture in a virtual environment is still torture.“ (Madary & Metzinger, 2016, p. 19).
  5. Responsible handling of sensitive data that can be recorded through VR (eye movement, emotions, body movements) must be ensured and the trust of users must not be abused by researchers or commercial companies.
  6. When it comes to advertising, data protection must also be taken into account. Consumer behavior can be seriously influenced, since advertising can be precisely adapted to the user and could therefore influence entire mental mechanisms.


  1. VR changes how we think. Now what?, Artefact group (n.d.),
  2. We’re Already Violating Virtual Reality’s First Code of Ethics, Daniel Oberhaus (06.03.2016),
  3. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology, Michael Madary, Thomas Metzinger (02.2016),