24 November 2022

Psychology professor: Experiences in Virtual Reality can motivate us to climate action


Most people see the need for a green transition, but our actions do not always follow suit. Psychology professor Guido Makransky wants to change that with the help of Virtual Reality.

Guido Makransky
Guido Makransky, leader of Virtual Learning Lab at the Department of Psychology

You may recognize the experience: You really want to eat more climate-friendly, recycle more and fly less. But when standing in the supermarket or planning the family's summer holiday, you still end up with steaks and plane tickets. And why exactly?

"Before you hang your head in shame, you can at least praise yourself for having good intentions on behalf of the climate. And the right intentions are a prerequisite for changing your behavior," points out Guido Makransky.

He leads a research project which aims to clarify how people can change their behavior via Virtual Reality – to the benefit of the climate. It can make a very strong impression to be in a virtual reality.

In his project, Guido Makransky uses the VR experience to let the threat posed by climate change make an impression on a number of trial subjects.

"A threat can affect our behavior enormously, and we experience the threat as significantly greater when we find ourselves in the middle of it. This is the case for our trial participants as we send them to a future scenario where the nature withers and burns," he says.

Threats are important – but not enough

The theory is that if you do not experience something as dangerous, then there is no reason to change your behavior – especially if the change in behavior is difficult.

When the topic is climate change, there is no shortage of threat images in the year 2022. We read about experts' gloomy predictions, hear politicians talk about bleak future prospects and watch news reports and documentaries about climate disasters. Why don't all these impressions lead to more climate action?

"The threat is a motivator to change behaviour, but it is not enough to make people act. Simultaneously to making threat apparent, we must also give people coping mechanisms and show people that they are able to act and that their actions make a difference. Many of the existing climate campaigns do not manage to provide people with appropriate coping mechanisms," Guido Makransky assesses.

His research group bases their project on theories in social and behavioral psychology, which highlight two crucial beliefs when you need to change behavior. The first is self-efficacy - your belief that you can actually act on your intentions.

"If I want to lose weight, I have to believe that I can be successful in accomplishing a goal. In the same way, I myself have to believe that I can actually make my diet greener," explains Guido Makransky and continues.

"The second belief is response-efficacy. If I eat greener, does it really have an impact on the climate? You occasionally hear people say: 'Well, Denmark is such a small country, it doesn't really matter what we do for the climate'. Those kinds of beliefs reduce people's response-efficacy.”

Experience your food footprint

Through Virtual Reality simulations, Guido Makransky investigates how to build both factors; people need to believe that they can change their behaviour and that their behaviour changes – here in relation to eating habits – matters.

The project is carried out in collaboration with post-doc Adéla Plechatá from the department’s Virtual Learning Lab and associate professor Michael Bom Frøst and his colleagues from The Department of Foods.

"In Virtual Reality, we first let the participants choose between three pasta dishes: with 100% meat sauce, with half meat or with vegetarian sauce. The participants are then randomized into two groups," explains Guido Makransky and continues:

"In one group, the participants receive VR information about the climate consequences of their choice of food. In the second group, the trial participants are forwarded to a virtual scenario 30 years into the future. Here they can experience what their choices have meant for nature and the climate," he says.

As a reward for taking part in the experiment, the participants get a real meal – here, too, they choose between meat, semi-meat and a vegetarian meal. Both before and after the experiment, the participants' behavior is recorded.

In particular, the experiment where the participants experience the world they have helped to create through the choice of food has great influence on the subjects' subsequent choice of real food. These trial participants eat significantly less meat than the participants who only receive information about their choices.

"Overall, we can see that the VR experience changes people's behavior to a much greater degree than you typically manage with a traditional information campaign," says Guido Makransky.

Many obstacles on the road ahead

However, there can be many distractions when making one's diet more climate-friendly, emphasizes Guido Makransky.

"There are habits, surroundings, price and taste. When we send the participants back into the real world, there are all sorts of factors that can influence people in both the right and wrong direction,” he says.

Finances are considered a major obstacle to behavior change in general. In a researcher portrait, Economics professor Mogens Fosgerau goes as far as to say that he does not know of any major societal transformations, nor in the environmental area, where the population's behavior has changed without an economic carrot or stick.

However, Guido Makransky believes that there are many other factors that come into play when motivating people to change behaviour.

"I am convinced that we humans are not only motivated by external punishment and rewards but are rather intrinsically motivated to perform actions that we identify as being valuable. After all, we often do things that are economically unwise. Why on earth buy organic products when they are more expensive than conventional ones," asks Guido Makransky and elaborates:

"We have clear evidence that economics cannot explain all our choices. Of course, economics plays a huge role in the green transition, but climate change affects virtually all aspects of life and requires interaction between a myriad of sciences – including psychology.”

Metaverse coming up

In the psychological part of the climate fight, Virtual Reality will become an important weapon. Guido Makransky has no doubts about that. He envisions that educational institutions in particular can use Virtual Reality to teach children about climate change and accustom them to a greener life.

"If we look just 5-10 years into the future, the use of Virtual Reality will increase greatly. We are on the threshold of the next generation of the Internet, and it will be far more experience-based and less information-based,” predicts Guido Makransky.

He refers to the so-called metaverse – an integrated network of virtual 3D worlds, which you can access through a VR headset. As a user, you then navigate around the metaverse using eye movements, so-called feedback controllers and voice control.

"Young people enjoy Virtual Reality's experimental way of learning. We also see today that children's and young people's media use is increasingly centered on physical experiences. Just look at how TikTok has engaged the young through dance moves," says Guido Makransky.

Powerful – and dangerous – technology

Exactly because Virtual Reality manages to capture people and change their behavior to such a large extent, he warns against a naive embrace of the technology.

"If I have to be completely honest, I think that Virtual Reality is going to bring more bad than good to the world. A bit like social media, which is now widely used to spread misinformation," says Guido Makransky.

"We are dealing with a very powerful, psychological mechanism that will influence our feelings and attitudes. If you presently are influenced by written disinformation campaigns, how do you think you will be influenced by experiencing these campaigns physically,” he asks.

In Guido Makransky's eyes, the mission is to be at the forefront of VR technology. The research must clarify the opportunities that lie in Virtual Reality – not least in relation to the green transition – but also the threats that the technology brings.

"It is a new, large area that must be regulated politically before it gets out of control. But that's how it is with all great technological breakthroughs. They are never allowed to stay in the desk drawer. They just have to be used responsibly," he concludes.

Immersive technologies such as Virtual Reality will play a significant role in our everyday life in just a few years. But how can immersive technologies be used to make the world a better place, and how can the negative consequences of these technologies be limited? This is what Guido Makransky and his research colleagues are investigating in the Virtual Learning Lab. Learn more in this video:


Guido Makransky
Department of Psychology
Mail: gm@psy.ku.dk 
Phone: +45 35 32 62 76

Simon Knokgaard Halskov
Press and communication consultant
The Faculty of Social Sciences
Mail: sih@samf.ku.dk 
Mobile: +45 93 56 53 29


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