Stop before it pops: using VR headsets to measure risk behaviour

Researchers who want to quantify risk behaviour usually do so by asking participants to fill in a questionnaire. But it can be done with virtual reality as well. In the YOUth study, they are conducting an experiment in which adolescents (ages 12-16) are asked to blow up virtual balloons. The advantage of this method is that you can measure actual behaviour, as opposed to what participants think they would do in a given situation. And another (important) advantage is that the young people think it's fun!

The adolescents in the YOUth study were handed VR headsets to put on and then – boom – they suddenly found themselves in a laboratory, blowing up balloons to earn points. Virtually speaking, of course. The way the game works is, the further you inflate the balloon, the more points you can earn. But if the balloon pops, too bad – no points for you. Which means you have to choose between being cautious or taking a risk and blowing up the balloon as big as you can. And that is precisely what the researchers are trying to measure with this VR task: risk behaviour among young people.


So far, the reactions from the YOUth participants have been extremely positive. Torsten, 12, even thought the VR task was ‘super-cool’: You had to blow up balloons and if you pumped too much, they popped and you got fewer points. So I had to estimate how much air you could pump into a balloon. It was a really awesome experience, because I've never worn a VR headset before.

Ecological validity

Risk behaviour is often measured by means of questionnaires, says Pascal Pas, a researcher with YOUth. When you quantify it using VR, it's likely that you achieve greater ecological validity: the results of the measurement are more representative of actual daily practice and their validity is therefore not limited to the test environment, which is often artificial. In other words, this kind of VR task lets you measure the actual behaviour, while a questionnaire often lets people reflect on their behaviour.

More information

If you would like to make use of this VR task in your own work, please contact Pascal Pas.