Virtual reality is a developing technology whose uses are only beginning to be exploited. Amid questions about where and how VR should be used for training are a growing number of studies showing that VR could have the potential to succeed where many modalities fail: behavior change training.

“Both augmented and virtual reality may hold an advantage over other training modalities … when the training [intervention] is targeting a difficult behavior change,” according to a recent eLearning Guild research report.

The COM-B model

The report cites the COM-B Behavior Change Model, a diagnostic model that looks at the interaction of capability, opportunity, and motivation (COM) and their impact on behavior (the B):

  • Capability may be either physical—the ability to actually carry out a behavior—or psychological. The latter refers to having the knowledge and the ability to perceive, reason, analyze, or perform other cognitive skills needed to perform a behavior.
  • Opportunity reflects the environment. Do necessary factors exist that make it feasible to perform a behavior? One cannot text while driving if one is not driving, for example. Opportunity might also present as social or cultural factors, such as peer pressure or cultural norms, that induce or inhibit behaviors.
  • Motivation encompasses both intrinsic factors, such as feelings or needs, and extrinsic motivators that might nudge an individual to plan or choose a course of action.

Behavior change requires a change in at least one of these elements, according to Julie Dirksen, an instructional designer and consultant who co-authored the report. Virtual reality or augmented reality can include or create these components.

VR can create conditions that influence behavior

One area of behavior change is developing skills—learning how to do something or how to do it better. For these situations, VR provides an opportunity for practice that offers consistency and reduces or eliminates the potential for injury. Errors in a VR environment often are far less damaging than in the physical world; this is true whether honing the skills to fly a 747, fight a forest fire, perform delicate heart surgery, or drive a forklift. Thus learners may develop and perfect physical capability using VR-based training.

VR simulations might also re-create psychological conditions that enable learners to practice essential skills. A study on mitigating fear and anxiety responses found reliable ways to trigger these, and other, emotions using VR—and then practice a desired behavioral response. Retailers and banks may use VR simulations to allow customer-facing employees to learn to deal with angry or abrasive customers, so those employees can learn and practice ideal customer-service responses—while also learning to manage their own stress responses. By repeatedly practicing the target behavior, learners can develop the psychological capability to perform it reliably on the job, even under stressful conditions.

VR simulations and augmented reality environments can create opportunities that either do not exist or are difficult or impractical to create in the physical world. This allows learners to practice behaviors that they cannot or would not practice in real-world circumstances. A VR environment that simulates an office, for example, provides social opportunities to practice and perfect coaching and providing feedback, standing up to harassers or bullies, conduct difficult conversations, and try multiple approaches to resolving conflicts—all scenarios that carry high stakes when practiced on real humans. Similarly, the physical opportunities to perform rare surgeries or fight very dangerous fires are rare. By providing a realistic physical opportunity, the VR environment makes possible the skills practice needed to create both the physical and psychological capability learners need.

Finally, a simulation, whether using augmented or virtual reality, can meet both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators and induce target behaviors. For example, simulations that allow learners to viscerally experience hurtful, harassing, or discriminatory behavior while in the virtual body of a person of a different gender or race might motivate those learners to change the way they treat other people in the physical world. VR might even drive reflective motivation, inducing learners to treat their own future selves more kindly, as studies using age progression have indicated. The ability to experience the consequences of actions, whether in interacting with virtual people or with the environment in an immersive simulation, can motivate people to change their behavior to avoid negative future consequences that are more abstract and distant in the physical world.

Other modalities

Longitudinal studies indicate that behavior changes that result from the more visceral experiences that learners have in an immersive virtual environment may be more tangible and last longer than changes triggered by experiences in other learning modalities.

A study on conservation behavior that offered participants immersive and more conventional experiences found that the VR participants used less paper after the study when compared with people who’d read about conservation or watched a video. And a long-term study on attitudes toward homeless individuals found that VR participants “outperformed” participants who’d engaged in role-playing for as long as eight weeks after the experience. However, only a small number of studies have looked at longer-term effects; additional studies are needed.

VR and behavior change

Download Augmented and Virtual Reality for Behavior Change, a free research report from The eLearning Guild, to explore how these emerging technologies are changing L&D. From building empathy to allowing learners to safely experience the consequences of their choices, VR offers a wealth of training options that simply don’t exist in the physical world. And join us in San Jose, California, June 25–27, 2019, for the Realities360 Conference, which is entirely focused on using AR and VR in training.