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EMBODIED EXPERIENCES IN IMMERSIVE VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS:
EFFECTS ON PRO-ENVIRONMENTAL ATTITUDE AND BEHAVIOR
SUBMITTED TO THE DEPARMENT OF COMMUNICATION
AND THE COMMITTEE ON GRADUATE STUDIES
OF STANFORD UNIVERSITY
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS
FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
Sun Joo Ahn
Immersive virtual environments (IVE) allow users experience vivid
sensorimotor stimuli by digitally simulating sensorimotor information. As a result,
users are able to embody experiences by seeing, hearing, and feeling realistic
perceptual cues linked to those experiences. Embodied experiences are defined as
being surrounded by simulated sensorimotor information in mediated environments
that create the sensation of personally undergoing the experience at that moment.
Based on the theoretical framework of embodied cognition, which stipulates a close
connection between sensorimotor experiences of the body and mental schemas, the
current dissertation studies demonstrated that embodied experiences in IVEs are
able to influence attitudes and behaviors in the physical, non-mediated world.
Two studies explored the effect of embodied experiences on pro-
environmental attitude and behavior by having participants embody the experience
of cutting down a redwood tree as a result of using non-recycled paper products.
Focus was also placed on investigating individual elements of embodied
experiences in IVEs and the moderating effect of individual differences in the
capacity to feel presence, the perception that a mediated experience is real. In both
studies, actual pro-environmental behavior is observed and compared to self-reports
of attitude and behavioral intention.
Study 1 (N = 47) compared embodying the tree-cutting experience in IVEs
against mental simulation (MS) of the experience after priming participants with
information on using non-recycled paper products and deforestation problems.
Results demonstrated that participants in both experimental conditions experienced
increased pro-environmental self-efficacy, or the belief that their individual actions
could improve the quality of the environment. However, in terms of pro-
environmental behavior measured by observation of actual usage of paper napkins,
participants who embodied the experience in an IVE demonstrated greater paper
conservation compared to those who merely imagined the experience. Analyses also
confirmed that participants in the IVE condition felt greater presence and personal
control during the embodied experience compared to those in the MS condition.
Study 2 (N = 101) manipulated individual elements that could affect how
participants embodied the tree-cutting experience in IVEs. Two independent
variables were manipulated in two levels in the same tree-cutting context from
Study 1 immersion (i.e., number and degree of sensorimotor information provided
to the user; High vs. Low) and agency of control (i.e., the agent who controls the
movements of the saw; Self-Move vs. Other-Move). Results demonstrated that
similar to Study 1, any form of embodied experiences increased pro-environmental
self-efficacy. However, agency of control influenced how actual pro-environmental
behavior was manifested in terms of paper conservation and this effect was
moderated by individual differences in the capacity to feel presence. Individuals
high in capacity demonstrated greater pro-environmental behavior when allowed to
fully control the saw, whereas individuals low in capacity demonstrated greater pro-
environmental behavior when they were allowed to let pre-recorded saw
movements guide their hands while cutting down the tree. Perceptions of presence
and control are also measured and analyzed to gain greater insight to the process of
embodied experiences in IVEs. In sum, the current studies demonstrated that the
vivid sensorimotor experience of seeing, hearing, and feeling a tree being cut down
in IVEs as a result of using non-recycled paper products is powerful enough to
influence actual paper consumption behavior in the physical, non-mediated world.
So many people have touched my life, provided invaluable guidance, and
showered me with an unbelievable amount of support and encouragement during
my time as a doctoral student at Stanford that I almost feel as if this dissertation is a
collaborative effort of all of my colleagues, friends, and family. These were
arguably the most dynamic five years of my life, and as much as I hate the banality
of this overused expression, time seems to have literally flown by, to the extent that
the fact I am getting ready to graduate seems surreal, even. In just five years, I have
managed to find my partner in life, marry him, obtain a doctoral degree, and secure
a job as an assistant professor. Most importantly, as I write this acknowledgment
while looking back at these emotionally-turbulent turning points of life, my husband
and I are nervously and excitedly anticipating the very imminent arrival of our first
son, Ryan Chu.
It is obvious that graduation will also mean the beginning of topsy-turvy
changes in my life as my new roles as an independent scholar and a new mommy
commence. But before anything else, I think I should take a short moment to
express heartfelt thanks and gratitude to the countless people who helped me grow
both intellectually and emotionally through these events.
Here at Stanford, I would like to thank my advisor, Dr. Jeremy Bailenson,
for being there for me during every hesitant step I took toward becoming an
independent scholar and researcher. He is the one who introduced me to the world
of virtual reality, and with undying patience, allowed me to develop my own area of
interest and to discover the joys of research. Most importantly, when something
needed to be done as soon as possible; when I had a burning question; when I
desperately needed advice I knew I could depend on him without a shred of doubt.
I cannot even begin to describe what a luxury this was during times of stress and
uncertainty. I probably could not have come so far and grown so much in such a
short span of time without his attention and guidance.
I would also like to thank Dr. Cliff Nass for his ability to see the best in
people. He always knew the right thing to say when I was just about ready to give
up. Anyone can see that he genuinely cares about the welfare of students and his
words of wisdom have a way of resonating in ones heart for quite a long while. Dr.
Byron Reeves must also be thanked for always knowing the right answer and for
having strong faith in my work. He always found time to be a mentor in times of
need despite his incredibly busy schedule and the advice coming from his long
years of experience and expertise was invaluable. Special thanks to Dr. Christian
Wheeler and Dr. Baba Shiv of the Graduate School of Business for reading this
dissertation and providing insightful comments for improvement the dissertation
has now become a significantly stronger piece of work, thanks to their constructive
inputs. Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Hunter Gehlbach for offering valuable
insights on the theoretical questions leading to this dissertation, helping improve the
actual study design, and providing his questionnaire items. Overall, I was blessed
with incredible opportunities to consult with the best experts that the field has to
offer both in and outside of Stanford and was constantly amazed at their willingness
to help resolve my problems as if those problems were their own.
Furthermore, this dissertation would never have been complete without the
extraordinary support from all the programmers and research assistants of the
Virtual Human Interaction Lab and the VRITS program. Many thanks to Crystal
Nwaneri, Divij Gupta, Felix Chang, Huong Phan, Julio Mojica, Michelle Del
Rosario, Oliver Castaneda, and Jim Zheng for working tirelessly to meet some
unrealistic deadlines for the completion of these studies and always coming to the
rescue in times of dreaded technical failures. Special thanks to Cody Karutz, the lab
manager, who magically made everything happen, no matter how tight the timeline
or how difficult the task.
And thanks to everyone at the front office for dealing with the monstrous
amount of paperwork associated with being a non-resident alien in the U.S. A big
thank you to Susie Ementon who always had answers to every question I had on
documentation, procedures, life as a grad student, and yes, even on rearing babies. I
would also like to thank all the other staff members, Barbara Kataoka, Mark
DeZutti, Mark Sauer, Katrin Wheeler, and Lisa Suruki, for being helpful in every
Outside of Stanford, I must thank Dr. Kyu-ho Youm for his mentorship ever
since I first decided to pursue a doctoral degree and Dr. Eun-ju Lee for her words of
wisdom on various aspects of life, including how to manage a decent work-life
balance as a working mother. I look up to them as my role models both