Retail is rapidly evolving to construct virtual environments for consumers. Online product images, videos, and virtual reality (VR) interfaces enliven consumer experiences and are a source of product information. Since consumers are unable to physically touch products in these digital environments, this research considers vicarious touch, or the observation of a hand in physical contact with a product in a digital environment. Across eight studies, the authors use images, GIFs, and VR to show that vicarious touch affects consumers’ psychological ownership and product valuation due to the active nature of product touch which results in a felt sense of body ownership of the virtual hand. This is termed the vicarious haptic effect. Results demonstrate that it is not simply enough to have a hand in an advertisement, the hand must be touching a product. The vicarious haptic effect is strongest for people who become highly stimulated by an immersive VR experience (i.e., measured via the elevation in heart rate). The vicarious haptic effect is attenuated if the viewed interaction does not represent a diagnostic hand movement. The authors discuss theoretical and managerial implications for digital product presentation in order to encourage feelings of product ownership and valuation.
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