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VR Measures the Population’s Paranoid Thoughts

VR Measures the Population’s Paranoid Thoughts

In a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, researchers have used Virtual Reality (VR) to create an experiment to measure levels of paranoia in the general public.

The VR equipment was supplied to the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London by Virtalis, Europe’s foremost VR Company. More than a third of the 200 people studied had paranoid thoughts, with those anxious and worried most likely to do so.

Lead Researcher Dr Daniel Freeman said: “Paranoid thoughts are often triggered by ambiguous events such as people looking in one’s direction or hearing laughter in a room. But it is very difficult to recreate such social interactions as a repeatable experiment.  Virtual reality allows us to do just that, to look at how different people interpret exactly the same social situation.  It is a uniquely powerful method to detect those liable to misinterpret other people.”

The VR environment used for the experiment was a four-minute journey between two stops on the London Underground. Distributed Immersive Virtual Environment, or DIVE software, was used to create the scenario with the train’s shell and the avatars populating it being developed in 3D Studio Max. The avatars’ movements were realistic because they had been copied from real people via an optical motion capture system. One avatar read a newspaper, and another would smile occasionally if looked at. Though all the characters were designed to be neutral, showing neither overt hostility nor friendliness, the volunteers interpreted the same characters in different ways.

The participants were able to see the virtual world in 3D thanks to a Virtual Research VR1280 head-mounted display, which has a resolution of 1280×1024 in each eye, a 60o diagonal field of view and a refresh rate of 60Hz. In order that the people taking part in the study could move about the underground train, a tracking system, the Intersense IS900, was deployed. During the study, the participants were played background tube noise and low level snippets of conversation in stereo.

The study discounted participants who suffered from either epilepsy or mental illness. The researchers noted that people who regularly used the London Underground were less paranoid than those that didn’t. The testing took place fourteen months after the terrorist attacks on the Underground and as the impact of terrorism on paranoid thinking is not known, the researchers have called for more research in this arena. A pre-assessment showed that those who were anxious, worried, pessimistic, or had low self-esteem, were most likely to feel paranoid.

Dr Freeman said the results suggest that paranoia was a quite normal emotion: “In the past, only those with a severe mental illness were thought to experience paranoid thoughts, but now we know that this is simply not the case.  It sometimes seems as if the one thing that unites the diverse peoples of the world is our fear of one another. Worries about other people are so common that they seem to be an essential – if unwelcome – part of what it means to be human.”
Professor Peter Kinderman, a Liverpool University psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society, said: “This is a valuable and useful tool.  It helps us to understand more about paranoia and I can see it could have a role to play in assessment and therapy.”

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