Immersive Persuasion. The effect of behavioral realism and social presence on social compliance in interactive, immersive environments

By Jonas Schlicht
Supervisor: Dr. Saar Mollen

The Rise of Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) is becoming relevant. With equipment becoming both affordable and more convenient to use, the technology finally prepares to enter the mass-market (Rogers, 2019). And tech-giants like Facebook, Google and Samsung are competing about the pole-positions for (what could be) a new media-revolution (Lanier, 2017; Bailenson, 2018).

But where does the enthusiasm about VR stem from? The industry hopes are based on two qualities of the medium: its capacity for high-level “presence” and “social presence”. That is the feeling of existing completely within a social world, and of sharing this virtual space with another human being (Blascovich et al., 2002). Unlike other media, VR is capable of creating feelings of ultimate illusion and immersion, which at times are hard to distinguish from phenomenological and psychological effects of real-life experiences (welcome to “the Matrix!”).

There have been high hopes that VR won’t just become a distribution-, but rather a communication-medium (Biocca, 1995), which allows for life-like interactive encounters in virtual space. This makes it interesting for interpersonal communication, professional meetings, but also for sale purposes. Using VR as persuasion tool finds promising first results: Higher levels of social presence were found to lead to more convincing health messages, higher purchase intention and higher brand recall (for a review: Fox, Christy, & Vang, 2009).

Research Gap and Goals

So, is VR a marketer’s new panacea? The goal of the study was to examine this (slightly provocatively) posed question, with the focus on two main aspects: Much of the present research did examine effect of social presence on social influence either not in VR or not in an interactive interpersonal setting. The latter was seen as problematic since it conceptualizes VR as a one-way medium, rather than addressing its potential for interactivity and communication.Secondly much of the present literature assessed persuasion in the form of attitude change or message-agreement. The current study however tested persuasion as social compliance (the change of behavior subsequent to a direct request), therefore offering a different and stronger indicator of persuasion.

Research Design and Procedure

The study made use of a cover story: Participants were invited into a VR-based social network, for having an interactive talk with a physically distant student and playing a quiz against him (the “other” was however unknowingly always controlled by the researcher) (Figure 1). During the quiz “the other” avatar applied a well know social compliance technique, the reciprocity principle (Cialdini, 2001). The “other” helped the student with a particularly hard quiz question, which entailed the winning of some money for the participant (1,50€). The reciprocity principle states, that people are inclined to return a favor, which they receive. Therefore, after the quiz the “other” avatar asked for a small donation to a charity he was working for. The social compliance-outcome variable therefore measured if participants complied to the request to donate the quiz-money (1,50€) or not.

The study applied a two-factor between-subjects design, with the other avatar either showing high behavioral realism (engaging in normal eye-contact with the participant-avatar) or showing low behavioral realism behavior (avoiding eye-contact for the whole duration of the interaction). Eye-gaze has been a common operationalization for behavioral realism and is non-arguably regarded as the single most expressive feature of non-verbal communication (Grau, 2003).


Figure 1. Perspective of the participant in the eye-gaze condition (left) and the full “other” avatar (right)
According to the social influence model for Virtual Environments (Blascovich et al., 2002), we assumed higher behavioral realism (vs. low behavioral realism) to lead to higher levels of perceived social presence, which would lead to higher levels of social influence. In other word, it was expected that participants in the high behavioral realism condition complied more to the donation request.

Results and Main Contributions

The expectations of the research were not backed up by the results. In absolute terms people in the high behavioral-realism condition (vs. low behavioral realism) donated slightly more money, however the difference remained small and non-significant. Results indicated that the present manipulation might have been too weak to generate meaningful results The interactive VR setting combined with the opportunity of interactive conversation with the “other” created high levels of behavioral realism and social presence, regardless of eye-gaze behavior. This indicated to us that social presence might not be indefinitely increasable, but might level out under such high-immersion, high-interactivity circumstances.

Surprisingly an exploratory sequential-mediation analysis (eye-gaze -> behavioral realism -> social presence -> donation behavior) revealed a significant pathway. However contrary to our expectation higher social presence predicted significantly less donations. Two explanations appeared to be reasonable:

  • Firstly this could have been due to a ceiling effect, due to high behavioral realism/social presence in both conditions. Eventually it even indicates a reversed U-shape effect for social presence effects on social influence, although this would go against the predictions of the original social-influence model (Blascovich et al., 2002).
  • Secondly high social presence might have triggered more resistance towards the compliance request. It is likely that the request for a donation was received as a threat to personal freedom, which activates persuasion knowledge, which in turn elicits reactance and opposing behavior (Linn & Knowles, 2013). It can be speculated if this reaction might have “ being” with another person. Therefore, it is encouraged to assess reactance and persuasion knowledge in future studies.


The study might act as a caution-tale for VR marketeers, indicating that high level social presence might not always be beneficial for sales and compliance purposes and might eventually even backfire. However, more research in similar settings is needed to confirm or disconfirm these results.


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