Flirtatious virtual characters can strengthen real relationships

Virtual reality can help couples resist the temptations of infidelity, new research finds.

It turned out that flirtatious interactions with a virtual bartender actually reduced participants’ interest in attractive and alternative partners in real life.

The first study of its kind demonstrated this through three experiments, conducting a virtual bartender flirt or having neutral conversations with participants wearing virtual reality glasses.

Each experiment was followed by various real-world interactions with attractive strangers. The first involved an interview with someone trained to instill interest in the participants. Participants who spoke to a flirtatious virtual bartender found the human interviewer to be less sexually attractive compared to participants who engaged in a neutral conversation with them.

In the second experiment, participants sat side by side with an attractive stranger (whom they assumed was a participant) and built pyramids with plastic cups. The stranger would then “accidentally” knock it over after a certain spot and ask for help rebuilding it.

Participants who engaged in a flirtatious conversation with the virtual bartender spent less time helping the attractive stranger than those engaged in a neutral conversation with the virtual bartender.

In the third experiment, participants and their partners were reunited after their interaction with the virtual bartender and asked to discuss with them the satisfying and frustrating aspects of their sex life. After the discussion, the participants who had the flirtatious interaction with the virtual bartender reported greater sexual desire for their partner and less sexual interest in other people compared to those who had a neutral interaction with the virtual bartender.

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The research, conducted at Reichman University in Herzliya, was based on the vaccine theory, which states that exposure to weak threats increases self-control by allowing people to prepare early for a more serious threat.

In this context, the researchers believed that exposure to a seductive avatar would increase people’s desire to protect their current relationship and make them perceive alternative partners as less sexually attractive.

“The results of the three studies suggest that it is possible to vaccinate people and make them more resilient to threats to their romantic relationship,” said Professor Gurit Birnbaum of the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, who led the study.

“The study shows that a mitigated virtual threat, which by definition cannot directly harm the relationship, allows people in a monogamous relationship to prepare ahead of time to deal more effectively with significant real-world threats.

“In this way, virtual reality interactions can help people maintain stable and satisfying relationships with their actual partners.”

The research paper, titled Biting the forbidden Fruit: The Effect of Flirting with a Virtual Agent on Attraction to Real Alternative and Existing Partners, was published in the journal Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology.