Flirtatious Virtual Characters Can Strengthen Real Relationships
Virtual reality can help couples resist the temptations of infidelity, according to new research.
It found that flirtatious interactions with a virtual bartender actually decreased participants’ interest in real-life attractive and alternative partners.
The first-of-its-kind study used three experiments to prove this by having a virtual bartender flirt or have neutral conversations with participants, who wore virtual reality glasses.
Each experiment was followed by different real-life interactions with attractive strangers. The first included an interview with someone trained to convey interest in the participants. Participants who spoke with a flirtatious virtual bartender perceived the human interviewer to be less sexually attractive compared to participants who had a neutral conversation with them.
The second experiment had participants sit side-by-side with an attractive stranger (who they thought was a participant) and build pyramids using plastic cups. The stranger would then “accidentally” knock it over after a certain point and ask for help with rebuilding it.
The participants who had a flirtatious conversation with the virtual bartender spent less time helping the attractive stranger compared to those who had a neutral conversation with the virtual bartender.
In the third experiment, participants and their partners were reunited after their interaction with the virtual bartender, and were asked to discuss with them the satisfying and frustrating aspects of their sex lives. After the discussion, the participants who had the flirtatious interaction with the virtual bartender reported a greater sexual desire for their partner and less sexual interest in other people, compared to those who had a neutral interaction with the virtual bartender.
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The research, which was conducted at Reichman University in Herzliya, was based on the inoculation theory, which proposes that exposure to weak threats increases self-control by allowing people to prepare ahead of time for a more serious threat.
In this context, the researchers believed that exposure to a seductive virtual character would increase people’s desire to protect their current relationship and cause them to perceive alternative partners as less sexually attractive.
“The findings of the three studies indicate that it is possible to inoculate people and make them more resistant to threats to their romantic relationship,” said Prof. Gurit Birnbaum, of the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, who led the study.
“The study shows that a weakened virtual threat, which by definition cannot directly harm the relationship, allows people in a monogamous relationship to prepare ahead of time to deal more effectively with significant threats in the real world.
“In this way, virtual reality interactions may contribute to people’s ability to maintain stable and satisfying relationships with their actual partners.”
The research, entitled Biting the forbidden fruit: The effect of flirting with a virtual agent on attraction to real alternative and existing partners, was published in the academic journal Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology.