Upon acquiring virtual technology company Oculus, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicted that virtual reality technology would one day permeate areas of life further than just the world of gaming, and we would ‘someday [use virtual reality] to enjoy a courtside seat at a basketball game, study in a classroom, consult with a doctor face-to-face or shop in a virtual store’. It’s true – the creation of immersive, virtual environments does indeed have masses of potential for industries which beforehand, were seemingly incongruous with such technology. Social psychology, the study of human experience and behaviour, is one of them.
For decades, the world of psychology has struggled to maintain the balance between a fundamental trade-off in research: realism vs control. Realistic, immersive experiments are fantastic for engaging participants, allowing them to act as natural as possible and to therefore gaining results that accurately represent real life. However, to achieve this vivid realism, social psychologists often have to incur massive costs and more crucially, sacrifice the amount of control they have over the experiment. In more realistic experiments, such as ones in the field, a wealth of other factors can enter the mix that cannot be controlled for, but could affect the behaviour, meaning uncertainty can be cast over any conclusions drawn.