Butting out in virtual reality may have real-life results

[From The Vancouver Sun]

Butting out in virtual reality may have real-life results

By Linda Nguyen, Canwest News Service
October 28, 2009

Our actions in virtual reality may subconsciously lead to changes to real-life addictive behaviours, according to a group of Quebec researchers.

A recent study by the GRAP Occupational Psychology Clinic and University of Quebec in Gatineau found that smokers who destroyed cigarettes in a virtual-reality environment many times over a period of months reported having less of a tobacco addiction than those who were assigned another virtual-reality task.

The theory behind the study, published in the current issue of the U.S.-based CyberPsychology and Behavior journal, is that the participants developed a “stronger drive” to quit smoking, because they subconsciously visualized themselves destroying their addiction.

Ninety-one smokers who were enrolled in a 12-week anti-smoking program were randomly divided into two groups.

Participants in the first group were asked to seek out and grasp up to 60 balls in a virtual-reality setting. In the second group, participants were told to find 60 virtual cigarettes and crush them with a virtual arm.

The participants, aged 18 to 65, were in good general health and regularly smoked 10 cigarettes or more a day in the last year. The average age of the participants was 44.

The two groups completed their tasks once a week for the first month of the study, and then once every two weeks for the following two months.

The researchers found that, in the 12th week of the program, 15 per cent of participants in the cigarette-crushing group said they had stopped smoking. Only two per cent in the ball-grasping group reported a change in their addiction.

During a six-month telephone followup, the researchers found that 39 per cent of the participants in the cigarette destroying group said they had stopped smoking, compared to 20 per cent in the ball-grasping group.

One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Benoit Girard, said the “significant effect” on the groups’ behaviour shows that virtual tasks may lead to a change in real-life behaviour.

“We made use of cybertherapy to introduce a virtual arm in a virtual environment,” he said Tuesday from Saguenay, Que.

A number of things could explain the different results, according to the study, including the regular meetings with a nurse that participants had to attend as part of the program.

“The impact of the cybertherapy may be limited to foster treatment attendance and adherence,” the study said. “Enjoying crushing virtual cigarettes would only be a motivator, and the active ingredients in the treatment would remain those related to counselling and applying self-help strategies.”

It’s also believed that virtually destroying cigarettes may have led the participants to increase their “self- efficacy” in behaviours associated with quitting smoking. As well, the study theorized that the investment of time and energy into crushing cigarettes may be linked to a boost in the participants’ motivation, or might create a more positive emotional response to stopping the behaviour.

The authors note that further research needs to be completed to determine the role cybertherapy plays, and whether it should be used in conjunction with other treatments in addictive-behaviour programs.

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