Anecdotal evidence from philanthropic fundraisers shows that virtual reality (VR) technology increases empathy and can influence people toward pro-environmental behavior. Non-profit organizations are increasingly marketing their causes using virtual reality and they report increased donations when VR technology is employed.

In VR, users are immersed in situations intended to feel more like the real world through technology, such as 360° video viewed through 3D headsets that block out visual and auditory distractions. See youtube for sample of 360 VR videos. The framing of the message as either positive or negative has long shown to have an effect on behavior, although consensus on the impact of framing has not been reached in relation to encouraging contributions to public goods.

A study was conducted through field experiments to investigate the effects of varying degrees of visual immersion and positive versus negative message framing on respondents’ contributions to a conservation charity. Participants were exposed to a five-minute underwater film about coral reefs and the importance of protecting them.

After watching the film, each participant completed a short questionnaire and had the opportunity to donate to a marine conservation charity. In addition, we tested a control treatment where no video was observed. The video was filmed in Indonesia which is host to some of the world’s most biodiverse reefs that are under great threat from human activity. We also conducted the study in Indonesia, sampling a total of 1006 participants from the Bogor city area and tourists on the island of Gili Trawangan—which is popular for scuba diving and snorkeling.

The show shows significant differences in observed behavior and reported emotions between all treatments compared to the control condition. Among the tourist sample, we find significant differences between the 360° film with a negative message which garnered significantly larger average donation amounts compared to the unidirectional film with both positive and negative framing.

Overall, we can infer from these studies that virtual reality is an effective way to raise awareness of environmental threats and encourage behavioral action, especially when tailored to target groups.

New technology, such as the VR head-mounted display, is highly effective at attracting interest which is an important point to encourage organizations to invest in new technologies.