Research lets people experience what it feels like to be a cow

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Would experiencing a day in the life of a cow make you less likely to eat meat? How would chopping down a tree affect your paper usage? These are questions that Stanford University researchers are using virtual reality to answer.

“If somebody becomes an animal, do they gain empathy for that animal and think about its plight?” asked Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “In this case, empathy toward the animal also coincides with an environmental benefit, which is that [not eating] animals consumes less energy.”

Bailenson is heading research at Stanford in which participants don virtual reality helmets and walk on their hands and feet. They are then able to see themselves as a cow in a virtual mirror. They experience what a cow does on its way to being slaughtered and then record what they eat for the next week to see if being a cow reduced meat consumption.

This is just one experiment Bailenson is conducting, but all his experiments are tailored to finding new ways to encourage environmental conservation.

E&E News reports: “Volunteers also have virtually chopped down a tree, a study aimed at examining attitudes toward paper use. Others took a virtual reality shower while eating lumps of coal — literally consuming it — to gain insight into how much was needed to heat the water.”

Some researchers argue that virtual reality can alter people’s behavior and change their attitudes with respect to environmental issues like global warming. In fact, the National Science Foundation has doled out $748,000 to universities, including Stanford, to conduct four experiments using virtual environments.

“It’s just a much more compelling way of getting people to understand the effects of their behavior now on the future,” Tim Herron of the Decision Theatre lab at the University of British Columbia. “It’s about visualizing the data for people. Once people can see it, it’s amazing how much it changes things. People begin to really understand the necessity to make some changes now to prevent these sort of things.”

The results of the virtual cow experiment are still inconclusive, reports E&E News, but comments from some study participants indicate that they now empathize with cows.

“Once I got used to it I began to feel like I was the cow,” wrote one participant. “I truly felt like I was going to the slaughter house towards the end and I felt sad that I (as a cow) was going to die. That last prod felt really sad.”

According to Bailenson, he has seen some students become more environmentally conscious. Students who had gone through the virtual reality lab of cutting down trees used 20 percent less paper when cleaning up a pre-staged mess than those who had simply watched a video of a tree being cut down.

Bailenson also noted that he gets emails months after people go through the experiment saying they can’t walk through the toilet paper aisle of the grocery store without thinking of a falling tree.

Update:  This experiment did not receive any of the NFS grant, as previously reported. The NFS and Stanford University have confirmed to TheDC news Foundation that no taxpayer dollars went towards the virtual cow experiment. The article has been corrected to reflect this information.

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