Can virtual reality wake us up when it comes to climate?

Consumers need more help in making choices in the supermarket, says communication scientist Marijn Meijers (UvA).

Imagine: you walk into the supermarket and thoughtlessly pick up a jar of chocolate spread to put in your basket. At that moment, your environment changes into a huge tropical rainforest. But instead of the beautiful flora and fauna that come with it, you see large plantations of oil palms, for which hundreds of original trees have been cut down. Those oil palms are necessary for the production of palm oil that is in your chocolate spread. Do you still want that jar now? Or would you rather opt for that other brand without palm oil?

This may sound like future music now, but the subjects in Marijn Meijers’ research are already walking around in such a supermarket. In fact, they are still walking in a bare room in which a virtual supermarket comes to life through their VR glasses. But for a future application, you could consider Augmented Reality (AR), in which a virtual world is projected into the real world. In this way, Meijers wants to make it much more clear to consumers what impact their daily choices actually have on the environment.

Positive self-image

We often have a hundred things on our minds when we walk through the supermarket. We are in a hurry and quickly grab some products from the shelves. In addition, we are unconsciously tempted by the route of the supermarket. You have first filled your cart with ‘good’ products from the fruit and vegetable department, and then you can also buy some ‘bad’ products from yourself, which will then come your way. And when you’re hungry, it’s even harder to limit those kinds of purchases.

Consumers therefore need more help to make the right choices, says Meijers. “Politics sees consumers too much as rational beings who make well-considered choices. As if they are going to read all product labels before deciding what to buy.” But people generally don’t and when they do, they are not always able to foresee the consequences. What does it mean when you buy chocolate spread with palm oil? If you don’t know exactly, you let other considerations weigh more heavily, such as: it’s so tasty.

An oil palm plantation in Malaysia.

The PhD research by Meijers, who is a psychologist by birth, also shows that we compensate ‘good’ behavior with ‘bad’ behaviour: “People want to have a positive image of themselves. To justify less desirable choices for themselves, they try to trade one action for another. They think, for example, that they have earned a piece of chocolate after a run. Or that they can buy steak – with a high CO2imprint – if they eat vegetarian for the rest of the week.” ‘Exchanging’ such actions may become more difficult when people are confronted with the effects of their food choices on the environment, Meijers thinks.


She recently received a major research grant to investigate the extent to which these types of communication tools can change consumer behavior in the coming years. In a pilot study she conducted with colleagues, she already had 250 students do their shopping in the VR supermarket. This showed, among other things, that young people consider the environment just as important as their health. The experiment always contained a sustainability message, such as ‘palm oil swallows the rainforest’ and a health message such as ‘palm oil is bad for you’.

“We had expected that the health message would work better, but that turned out not to be the case. As soon as a product had a negative impact on health or the environment, the test subjects started to avoid the product,” says Meijers. So the interactive experience really brought about a behavioral change. This is largely due to motivation, according to the researcher. “We saw that this experience gave people the feeling that they can make a difference. Not only did they make better choices in the virtual supermarket, but we also saw an effect in the long term: in the real supermarket they also opted for better products after the experiment.”

Snowball effect

Greta Thunberg demonstrates in front of the parliament building in Stockholm.

The fact that such a virtual experience really gives people the idea that they can make a difference on their own is an important outcome of the pilot study, Meijers emphasizes. “People often think: I can eat vegetarian on my own, but if I’m the only one, the effect is a ‘drop in the ocean’. And that is of course true. When it comes to sustainability, the behavior of one individual has little effect unless you are Greta Thunberg. It requires collective action.”

But as an individual you can create a snowball effect, says Meijers: “You can encourage others to do the same with your behavior. We therefore also include this in the research: to what extent people will share their virtual experience with others. In the weeks after the experiment, they receive a daily app asking whether they have talked about it with others. We expect that people will certainly do that because you create such a penetrating experience with virtual reality.”

These kinds of long-term effects of communication tools have been little researched in communication science. “Often we don’t look further than 3 weeks. In our project we will investigate whether effects of such a virtual experience can still be seen after 6 months.”

Supermarket of the future

How can the VR supermarket be used in practice? Meijers thinks that the supermarket used in the research will mainly be used in education, so that people will learn about sustainable behavior at a young age. At the same time, she already envisions all kinds of applications that can help us in the supermarket of the future, such as an Augmented Reality app where you can experience the environmental effects of products while you are in the supermarket.

“But for the people who have less time while shopping, you could also offer information on the hand scanners that you see more and more in the supermarket these days. With this you can, for example, provide consumers with information about the environmental impact when scanning a product. You have to watch out for an overload of information. Perhaps you end up with something like a Nutri score that tells you how healthy a product is, but for the environment.”

Source: Kennislink by

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