Anyone who has ever failed to accomplish a New Year’s Resolution knows that changing one’s habits poses myriad difficulties. In particular, our decisions to change our ways are often motivated by negative emotions, such as fear of early death or guilt from overeating for example, which previous research has found less successful than efforts motivated by optimism and self-affirmation. Multiply this by millions and you have the challenge of social engineering: How do you get a nation of smokers to quit or an obese population to avoid the outcomes that drive health care costs down the line? If it’s this hard to get one person to change, how do you get a million to change? That was core of the problem faced by a major transportation company that wanted to make roadways safer for cyclists and motorists.

On one level this is a public safety issue. More than two people die in bicycle/motor vehicle crashes every day in the United States. In the U.K., bicyclists are 15 times more likely than drivers to die on roads. Worldwide, 875 cyclists and pedestrians die every year in traffic.

But more basically, this is a behavior issue. These deaths are caused by humans intelligent enough, one assumes, to operate motor vehicles and bicycles. People know that cigarettes cause cancer, yet they smoke. People know being overweight carries known risks, and yet they eat too much. And anyone qualified to drive a car knows what can happen to a cyclist upon impact, and yet fatalities increase. The problem fueling this traffic safety crisis is not a lack of information.

All of this is why when an automotive company approached a blended WPP team including Hill+Knowlton Strategies to work on this aspect of traffic safety, we thought of virtual reality, or VR. VR is becoming increasingly accessible and more widely used. It’s fun and widely used in entertainment, especially video games. VR is finding wide use as a training tool in everything from basic onboarding to letting surgeons practice.

New uses for virtual reality as a therapeutic tool are becoming realities all the time. Studies are showing that VR can help paraplegics regain some motor function and dental patients experience less pain. VR is being used to treat PTSD, autism, and anxiety.

Virtual reality can even make behavior change a reality. Stanford University Professor Jeremy Bailenson at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab uses VR to reduce racial prejudice. Professors from UCLA and Stanford can even use VR to get people to put aside more for their pensions by connecting them to their future selves. A telecommunications company partnered with a North Dakota high school to put teenage drivers into a virtual reality simulation to help them experience the consequences of distracted driving. Others have used VR to effect behavioral change, such as for charitable giving and health recuperation, giving us initial hope for success in increasing traffic safety.

One reason for VR’s wide applicability (besides that it is fun, of course) is that it creates a sense of empathy better than other mediums. You won’t actually walk a mile in another man’s shoes, but you will feel like you did. And if it can create an experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own, can VR also be a behavior change tool, to help people lead healthier, greener and safer lives?

Research has shown a clear link between empathizing with another’s experience and behavior change. Why? Embodying an experience makes it much more salient and engaging than traditional one-dimensional education campaigns. Giving someone an experience that allows them to be in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through their perspective, is proven as an effective way to build empathy. By understanding another’s experience of the world, we are more able to be conscious of it when going through our lives, such as when we are cycling or driving on the road. The experience of the other person is so much more real to us.

That’s why H+K thought that virtual reality could be an effective way of helping drivers and cyclists share the road safely. Because at a very basic level, roads require cooperation for people to use them safely and effectively.

That’s why a focus of our campaign was overcoming the adversarial relationship between cyclists and drivers in which they acted like fans of rival sports teams who bond over their love of their own team as well as their hatred of the opposing team as well as its fanbase.

Our team at H+K, led by my colleague Thea Knight and myself, designed a groundbreaking virtual reality experience we called “WheelSwap” in which drivers and cyclists experienced each other’s perspectives by using VR headsets. (We partnered with a company called Happy Finish that filmed and edited the VR.) This enabled motorists and cyclists to see how inconsiderate driving and riding can be at the least scary – and potentially fatal – for their fellow road users. To determine whether activating empathy would make road users more considerate, we conducted the experiment across five European markets with more than 1,200 participants.

Our experience was designed to show common bad road behaviors, the sorts of things many of us do when we’re not consciously thinking about it. Of course, a minority of drivers or cyclists may be deliberately careless on the roads. But more of us could be inadvertently careless because we don’t empathize with the position of the person at the other end of our actions.

Critically, our campaign was not about placing blame. It was about recognizing that everyone has a responsibility to help improve the situation – from car manufacturers to city planners to the billions of road users out there.

The results were promising. Fully 60 percent of the cyclists and drivers who took part in the experience actually became more considerate on the roads, such as more safely signaling at intersections. Thanks to VR, behavioral science led to measurable behavior change – and safer roads.

Facilitating behavioral change is a breakthrough that could open up new vistas for human progress. If a virtual reality headset can reduce prejudice, increase saving for pensions, and get cyclists and drivers to look out for each other, then can the final frontier of human achievement be far behind? It is possible at this juncture to contemplate a world in which virtual reality makes the impossible possible: We might be finally able to keep our New Year’s Resolutions.

 

The Wheelswap Experiment earned the award for Best Use of Technology & Consumer Electronics at the European Excellence Awards in December 2018 and the award for Best Use of VR/AR at the DADI Awards in the summer of 2018.

Dan Berry is the Director of Behavioral Insights at H+K Smarter in London. You can reach him here.

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