Individuals ‘can be profiled’ via Virtual Reality platforms


How people behave in virtual reality can provide clear evidence of their personality, according to psychologists in the UK.

The findings, published today (Thursday October 15, 2020) in Nature Scientific Reports, confirm the very real potential that individuals can be ‘profiled’ via their interactions in VR, further raising concerns about how any data collected via VR platforms might be used.

“If a system collected customer or visitor data during VR use and linked it to a personal account, this combination would allow a company to profile the personality of the user without obtaining consent and target ads towards that individual on that basis,” explained Stephen Fairclough, professor of psychphysiology at Liverpool John Moores University.

Current players in the VR arena include Google, Microsoft and Facebook, which owns Oculus.

Fear simulation

Researchers at LJMU in collaboration with industrial partners at Emteq Ltd. looked into how people respond to a potential threat in a virtual reality environment.

Using room-scale VR and a unique virtual environment custom built by the research team, they asked volunteers to walk across a grid of ice blocks suspended 200m above the ground to reach a door on the other side.

When people stood on an ice block, one of 3 things happened, it was either solid (safe), it cracked (changed colour/crack sound) or it shattered and participants experienced a virtual fall.

The research team systematically increased the level of threat (frequency of crack/fall blocks) to study how people responded. This was gauged both by their movements and also by changes in their facial muscle activity. 

Trait neuroticism

Christopher Baker, the researcher on the project, said: “We found that people were more cautious as the threat increased but, more significantly, this tendency towards risk averse behaviour was more pronounced for those participants with a higher level of trait neuroticism.”

Neuroticism is one of the five major personality traits most commonly used to profile people. - and describes a personality type which are more sensitive to negative stimuli and potential threat.

“These traits are normally assessed via self-report questionnaire, but can also be assessed on the basis of behaviour,” added Professor Fairclough.

“The fact that people using VR could potentially be assessed implicitly and without their knowledge has implications in a wider sense for society.”



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