Immersive experiences and VR are fast becoming the weapon of choice for marketers hoping to secure engagement and persuade audiences to get behind their product or brand. What audiences experience in immersive worlds and virtual reality proves impactful, memorable and persuasive.

Not only can VR experiences be highly convincing, they can also have profound effects on our psychology. As leading VR production company Rewind explain, the virtual reality experience (VRE), is where ‘presence’ is at its most powerful. “The perception of being physically present in a non physical world is an incredibly powerful sensation.”

How do VR worlds affect our psychology?

People in virtual environments tend to behave in ways characteristic of their virtual characters. Take for instance the virtual reality users who played as a Superman-like avatar and as such were more likely to demonstrate altruistic behaviour after leaving the digital environment, or those who used an avatar with lighter or darker skin who showed a corresponding change in racial bias.

The reason is that immersive experiences and virtual reality cause a suspension of disbelief. It forces us to perceive of ourselves differently, and act according to our own perceptions of the characteristics the immersion tricks us into thinking we have. For example, if you embody a tall avatar, you’ll negotiate more aggressively than if you were given a shorter body.

These sorts of physical changes can’t be replicated in the real world. But such psychological changes can be concerning, especially when the VR experience encourages violence or criminal activity.

Can immersive experiences and virtual reality have negative effects?

Sceptics of virtual reality are concerned with the negative psychological effects of virtual reality such as sensory conflict theory. One study defined sensory conflict theory as having the visual and vestibular systems at odds while in an immersive, virtual environment—in layman’s terms, that’s a disconnect between what you see, hear or touch and what you actually do.

As researchers point out, there is good reason to be concerned about VR’s influence on the human brain, compared with television or non-immersive video games. A host of experiments have demonstrated the plasticity of the human mind and its unconscious molding by its environment; just look at the Stanford Prison Experiment for particular evidence of this.

There are reports of Oculus Rift users experiencing the sensation of a fraying divide between real and virtual that persists for a few minutes after detaching from a VR device. Even more concerning are cases of VR immersion resulting in serious real world neglect.

Throw into the mix the findings that virtual reality headsets can induce feelings of nausea and it becomes clear that there’s a long road ahead.

What does this mean for applications of immersive or virtual reality?

Those participating in VR should be informed about the serious, lasting behavioural effects that may result from virtual reality experiences. The subliminal influence effected in an immersive virtual environment must also be controlled, but developers can also use this information to their advantage.

The Oculus Rift’s applications in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) lead the charge in the future of trauma treatment.

One study focused on using virtual reality to treat PTSD for US Vietnam veterans by facilitating imaginal exposure to help overcome stress. Virtual reality treatment resulted in a decrease in levels of PTSD for the participants and helped reduce reliance on negative coping methods such as substance abuse and depression.

Virtual reality treatments have also been found to relieve an amputee’s phantom limb pain in experimental applications using a virtual reality arm. The causes of such pains are unknown, but may result from remaining brain representation of the missing limb. VR provides a potential solution.

It won’t be long until the lasting effects of immersive and virtual reality experiences are fully understood, but whether production companies leverage this knowledge to our advantage or disadvantage remains to be seen.