A Virtual Night Out

Study of decision-making in a real-life environment featured in Scientific American

February 23, 2024

Science magazine Scientific American has devoted a long article to a research project based at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law’s Department of Criminology.

What influence do emotions – such as anger, fear, and excitement – have on our decisions, and do they alter whether or not people engage in crime and violence? This is the fascinating question being investigated by our researchers. To this end, they use 360° virtual technology to place test participants in a realistic bar room setting. Participants are con­fronted with different scenarios in the bar designed to stimulate different emotional experiences, such as being in­sulted by a stranger or witnessing a girl being harassed. This allows the researchers to explore how different emotions alter participant’s decision-making and willingness to engage in acts of violence.

“We are using virtual-reality technology where we can put participants in an immersive crime opportunity. The goal is to manipulate their real-time emotions,” the magazine quotes Shaina Herman, who recently presented the project at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Denver, Colorado.

Traditional research methods typically simply ask people whether they would commit a crime without providing relevant contextual information. But re­search shows people are not good at predicting their future behav­ior without relevant information. That is why the Freiburg-based researchers are relying on new technologies such as virtual reality (VR). With the help of VR headsets, research participants can be placed in virtual environments designed to reflect real-world opportunities to com­mit crime. This allows researchers to more closely observe how people evaluate certain situations and make crime decisions.

 “I can’t very well ask a study participant to go commit a crime and then, while he’s committing the crime, interview him about how he’s perceiving the situation [and his] emotions,” Herman says.

The use of VR in criminology was pioneered by Max Planck criminologist Jean-Louis van Gelder, Director at the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg and Head of the Department of Criminology. He is the founder of MAXLab Freiburg, a criminological re­search laboratory that opened in Freiburg’s city center in July 2022.

Scientific American covers research, ideas, and knowledge in science, health, technology, the environment, and society. Founded 1845, it claims the title of oldest continuously published magazine in the United States.

Virtual Bar Scenes Are a New Tool to Study Why People Commit Crimes in the Heat of the Moment.
Scientific American, February 21, 2024.

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