For me, the most interesting instructional design challenges are the ones where it’s not a knowledge problem. If simply giving people information resolves the challenge, problem, or opportunity, then that’s pretty straightforward, and we have a lot of tools to use for that.

I’m most interested in the situations where the person knows the right thing to do, but doesn’t do it for some reason. Is there anything instructional designers can do to help with that? For example, most people know that texting while driving is bad, but they still do it. Why is that, and what can we do about it?

One of the interesting theories is the idea that people can know something intellectually, without believing it viscerally, and that can impact their behavior.

Can visceral experiences change behavior?

A really interesting study that the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford conducted recently used virtual reality to look at the influence of a visceral experience on behavior. While I think it would be extremely problematic to generalize practical application from this single study, it’s worth taking a closer look at the findings in this case.

Cutting down virtual trees

The study looked at the result of learning about the negative impact on deforestation of using non-recycled paper goods. They gave both groups in the study substantive information on the use of non-recycled paper products and deforestation problems. They learned how much toilet paper a single tree could produce, and how many trees needed to be cut down to provide toilet paper for a single person.

In one group, participants were asked to read a vivid account of the physical act of cutting down a tree, and to mentally imagine they were doing it (the “mental simulation” condition).

In the other group (the “immersive virtual environment” condition), participants put on a head-mounted virtual-reality device, and went into a virtual-reality environment where they had the experience of cutting down a tree in virtual forest. They held a virtual chainsaw that had haptic feedback, so they physically felt the resistance of the wood when the chainsaw bit into the tree, and they experienced the sights and sounds of the virtual forest.

So both groups received information about the importance of not using too much non-recycled paper and about the impact on deforestation. They basically had identical information but they had different visceral experiences.

How’d the two groups do?

Both groups filled out surveys that measured their sense of self-efficacy—how much they felt that their actions can improve the quality of the environment (e.g., “My individual actions would improve the quality of the environment if I were to buy and use recycled paper products”). Both groups showed a significant increase in their self-efficacy measures after the experiment compared to the survey they took before the experiment began.

Basically, both groups self-reported significant change in their attitudes.

Here’s where it gets interesting

In addition to filling out the survey, they asked participants to fill out some demographic data. While they were doing that, the researcher would “accidentally” knock over a glass of water. They then handed a pre-counted stack of paper napkins to the participant and asked for help mopping up the water.

Then they counted the used napkins.

Participants who had been in the immersive virtual environment used approximately 20 percent fewer napkins to clean up the water spill than did participants in the mental simulation condition, despite having reporting similar attitudes in both conditions.

Having a visceral experience mattered

As I mentioned at the beginning of this research review, it would be difficult to generate guidelines for application from this single study, but it does suggest that visceral, physical experiences can have an impact on behavior.

While we should be cautious about overgeneralizing, I think there are some keys ideas we can consider:

  • Attitude is not necessarily a predictor of behavior. When you are looking for a behavior change, you need to evaluate based on what the participants do, rather than what they say.
  • Active, visceral experiences may influence behavior change. If you are trying to change a particularly challenging or important behavior, you can consider first-person active experiences as a tool in your instructional design toolbox, even without access to a virtual-reality environment.

Full text of the study is available online (see The Study section below).

The Study

Ahn, Sun Joo and Jeremy Bailenson. “Embodied Experiences in Immersive Virtual Environments: Effects on Pro-Environmental Self-Efficacy and Behavior” (2011). Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Stanford University. Viewed 4/3/2013 at