Flirting With Fake Bartender Could Fend Off Real Temptation

Virtual reality has entered the realm of relationship therapy
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 3, 2023 1:41 PM CST
Flirting With Fake Bartender Could Fend Off Real Temptation
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/Jikaboom)

Staying monogamous has been one of humankind's most persistent partnership problems. Now, scientists in the virtual reality world think they may have a remedy of sorts to keep couples honest and cheating at bay. Futurism reports on some "strange research" out of Reichman University in Israel that suggests flirting with a "seductive" virtual agent—in this case, a pretend bartender in a VR bar—could help fend off temptation in real-life couplings. In the study published in the Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology journal, three separate experiments were carried out, two of which started out the same way: The subjects, in monogamous relationships in the real world, donned virtual reality glasses and entered a "bar," where they chatted with a fake bartender that was the same gender as their real-life romantic partner; the avatar was either neutral or flirtatious with them.

In the first experiment, the subjects were then questioned by an attractive, flirtatious interviewer on relationships, after which the subjects were asked to rate the attractiveness of the interviewer. Those who'd first interacted with a flirtatious VR bartender tended to rate the interviewer as less attractive than those who'd chatted with the more neutral avatar. The second experiment involved subjects helping fellow "subjects"—who were actually researchers acting flirty—build plastic cup pyramids. Here, too, the subjects who'd had flirtatious VR bartenders tended to help out less the "hottie in distress," as Futurism puts it, than those who'd been with neutral avatars. Finally, a third experiment separated real-life couples, with one watching a neutral video while their partner spoke with the flirty avatar. When they were brought back together, they were asked questions on their sex lives.

Researchers found that the partner who'd been with the flirty VR bartender "reported a stronger sexual desire for their partner and a reduced sexual interest in other people" than their partner. The study was based on inoculation theorizing, which a news release explains as "exposure to weakened threats [that] increases self-control by allowing people to prepare ahead of time for a more serious threat." Gurit Birnbaum, a co-leader of the study, makes the comparison to someone on a diet being exposed to a forgotten, dried-out cookie, being reminded how they're trying to lose weight, and then being able to resist partaking of freshly baked cookies. The experiments' findings suggest "it is possible to inoculate people and make them more resistant to threats to their romantic relationship," Birnbaum notes in the release, calling it the first study to examine this. (More virtual reality stories.)

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