Research: Virtual reality proves violence breeds violence

People who have punched or kicked out at someone in their life are quicker to do so again, new research has revealed.

The study of ‘trigger’ reactions to potential aggression showed people accustomed to using their fists were up to five times faster at doing so than people with no history of fighting.

And they often adopt a ‘hit and ask questions later’ approach, frequently resorting to violence towards someone who was actually being friendly.

“Knowing the length of someone’s fuse is an eye-opener but also crucial to professionals working in a range of areas from domestic violence to prisons,” said Dr Sylvia Terbeck, a senior lecturer in psychology at Liverpool John Moores University.

Night-time street

Researchers put 116 men and women who had no official record of violence through an immersive virtual reality test where participants were provoked by virtual humans on a simulated night time city street.

An avatar would for example say to the participant “What are you looking at?”. But some avatars would also be friendly. “Are you ok?” Their task was to hit virtual humans who are aggressive and to shake hands with friendly ones.

The most violent participants reacted to the avatar within 1.5 seconds - five times faster than others - also making errors by hitting someone who was actually going to be friendly to them, because they did not wait till the end of the message.

Explained Dr Terbeck: “We found that the reaction time after provocation – that is the faster they hit the virtual human – could predict quite accurately if the participant had been physically violent in reality in the past.


And she said the use of VR tests of this type could help build profiles, particularly if their violence leads them into the criminal justice system.

“People are naturally reluctant to admit that they are violent, so proving that they have a violent streak by various means is obviously useful.”

And co-author Professor Ian Howard, of Plymouth University, said: "This goes to show that virtual reality is a really good way to investigate human behaviour that we couldn’t measure otherwise."

The study Assessing reactive violence using immersive virtual reality is published on May 6, 2022 by the journal PLOS ONE.


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