If virtual reality ever really takes off, it could bring us to some weird places. For a perfect example, check out this strange research about flirting with a VR bartender.
The new study out of Israel's Reichman University found that people may better learn to overcome the temptation of infidelity by "flirting" with a virtual agent.
Published in the journal Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology, the research hinges on a simple question: whether flirting with a "seductive" virtual agent — in this case, a VR bartender — would either help or hinder their real-life monogamous relationships. The social scientists believed it would help, and through a series of experiments seemed to verify their hypothesis.
It all starts, a press release explains, when the participant "walks into" a VR bar where they then begin talking to a VR bartender of the same gender of their real-life romantic partner, who either behaved flirtatiously or neutrally.
In the first experiment, those participants were subsequently paired with attractive interviewers following their VR experience who asked them a series of relationship-oriented questions while behaving flirtatiously. The participants were then asked to rate how attractive they found the interviewer — and those who had the flirtatious VR bartender rated the human they met with afterward as less attractive than those who had had neutral interactions.
In the second experiment, participants were paired with an attractive person of their partner's gender who they thought was a fellow subject, but who in fact was a researcher. The researchers-in-disguise were tasked with asking the participants for help building pyramids out of plastic cups, all the while conveying interest in them. In this part of the study, the researchers found that those who had the flirty VR bartenders spent less time helping the hottie in distress than those who had the disinterested virtual agent.
"In the third experiment, the participants were invited to the laboratory with their partners," the press release reads. "The couples were separated into different rooms, one of them interacting with the virtual bartender, and the other watched a neutral video."
The reunited couples were then asked to talk about the ups and downs of their sex lives and then to rate "the extent to which they experience sexual desire towards their partner and towards other people." In this part, the Reichman researchers found that those who'd flirted with the seductive VR bartender "reported a stronger sexual desire for their partner and a reduced sexual interest in other people" than those who had a neutral virtual interaction.
"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," Professor Gurit Birnbaum of Reichman's Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, who co-wrote the paper and co-directed the study, said in the school's press release. "This is the first study in the world to illustrate how a virtual reality interaction can improve real-world relationships."
Birnbaum insisted that interactions with virtual agents like the VR bartender "by definition cannot directly harm the relationship." Even that gets hazy, though — how would people feel about realistic simulated sexual or emotional contact with a VR partner? After all, people are apparently getting really obsessed with their AI girlfriends, often to the chagrin of their IRL partners.
All the same, it is a fascinating way to look at how VR and AI can help people handle what the researchers call "threats in the real world" — and, perhaps, could help them with loads of other problems as well.
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