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Why just Experience the Future when you can Change it: Virtual Reality can Increase Pro-Environmental Food Choices through Self-Efficacy



Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) has the potential to play an important role in increasing environmental literacy by providing individuals the opportunity to experience plausible scenarios of climate change directly. However, there is currently little evidence for the role of IVR, and for specific design features, in increasing environmental self-efficacy. The main objective of this study was to investigate the effects of an IVR intervention on pro-environmental intentions, knowledge, and transfer. A total of 90 middle school students were randomly assigned to two IVR intervention conditions: 1) Awareness, in which students experience the impact of their current food choices on future environmental change; 2) Awareness + Efficacy, in which students had the opportunity to change their food choices and experience the positive impact of this on future environmental change. Both interventions resulted in significant increases in intentions, knowledge, and transfer. However, the Awareness + Efficacy condition resulted in further significant increases in intentions and transfer than the Awareness condition. Finally, mediation analysis showed that the effect of the Awareness + Efficacy condition on intentions and transfer was fully mediated by self-efficacy. These results suggest that allowing students not just to experience climate change but also to see the positive impact of changed personal choices can maximize the effectiveness of IVR on intentions and transfer.
Why just Experience the Future when you can Change it: Virtual Reality can Increase
Pro-Environmental Food Choices through Self-Efficacy
Adéla Plechatá1*, Thomas Morton1, Federico J.A. Perez-Cueto2, Guido Makransky1
1 Department of Psychology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
2 Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
*Øster Farimagsgades 2A 1353 Copenhagen K, Denmark,
Data Availability Statement: The datasets generated and analyzed during the current study are
available via the Open Science Framework:
Conflict of interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.
The current version was accepted for publication in Technology, Mind and Behavior.
Short title: Promoting Sustainable Diets in Virtual Reality
Keywords: immersive virtual reality, climate change education, self-efficacy, sustainable
diets, transfer
Word count: 6361
Why just Experience the Future when you can Change it: Virtual Reality can Increase
Pro-Environmental Food Choices through Self-Efficacy
Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) has the potential to play an important role in increasing
environmental literacy by providing individuals the opportunity to experience plausible
scenarios of climate change directly. However, there is currently little evidence for the role of
IVR, and for specific design features, in increasing environmental self-efficacy. The main
objective of this study was to investigate the effects of an IVR intervention on pro-
environmental intentions, knowledge, and transfer. A total of 90 middle school students were
randomly assigned to two IVR intervention conditions: 1) Awareness, in which students
experience the impact of their current food choices on future environmental change; 2)
Awareness + Efficacy, in which students had the opportunity to change their food choices
and experience the positive impact of this on future environmental change. Both interventions
resulted in significant increases in intentions, knowledge, and transfer. However, the
Awareness + Efficacy condition resulted in further significant increases in intentions and
transfer than the Awareness condition. Finally, mediation analysis showed that the effect of
the Awareness + Efficacy condition on intentions and transfer was fully mediated by self-
efficacy. These results suggest that allowing students not just to experience climate change
but also to see the positive impact of changed personal choices can maximize the
effectiveness of IVR on intentions and transfer.
Keywords: immersive virtual reality, climate change education, self-efficacy,
sustainable diets, transfer
Climate change is arguably the most pressing challenge of our time. Nevertheless,
although scientific consensus has consistently pointed towards the reality of climate change
and its sources in human activities (IPCC, 2021), individuals and governments have been
slow to adopt the wide-ranging behavioral and lifestyle changes necessary to mitigate the
problem. In this context, it is vital to identify ways to communicate climate change
effectively and encourage individual change in the domains of behavior that have the highest
environmental impact.
Today’s food industry contributes to 26 % of emissions from anthropogenic
greenhouse gases (GHGs; Poore & Nemecek, 2018), and according to some analyses
(Springmann et al., 2018), shifting toward a diet that is less meat-based (e.g., < 300 g red
meat per week) could result in a 29% reduction of GHGs emissions. Based on these data,
dietary change is both environmentally impactful and open to change. Given the pressing
nature of climate change and current knowledge of the drivers of (in)action (Gifford,
Kormos, & McIntyre, 2011), it is vitally important to identify innovative interventions that
both engage individuals with climate change and provide them with the knowledge and skills
that would support effective action. The goal of the current study is to test Immersive Virtual
Reality (IVR) as one possible intervention and to investigate which design principles can
enhance its effectiveness to promote pro-environmental attitudes.
Drivers of environmental action
Reviews of the literature suggest that inaction on climate change is determined by
multiple structural and psychological barriers (Gifford et al., 2011). However, specific
features of climate change are thought to be particularly disruptive to direct and immediate
action. Principally, climate change is intangible – it is beyond the realm of direct experience,
its consequences are uncertain, and it is most likely to affect the lives of others who are
distant in space and time. Accordingly, climate change is not experienced as a salient risk in
the lives of many individuals around the globe. Nevertheless, research also shows that simply
perceiving risks is rarely enough to stimulate action. A sense of risk alone can, in fact,
undermine adaptive intentions when this triggers maladaptive fear and avoidance (Ajzen,
1991; Grothmann & Patt, 2005; Stern, Dietz, Abel, Guagnano, & Kalof, 1999). Addressing
perceived efficacy – that is, the belief that individual actions can reduce the threat – is argued
to be critical for ensuring positive behavior change in response to perceived risks, threatening
or fear-inducing information (Witte, 1992). As in many other domains, in the environmental
domain, efficacy is often understood as comprising two components: response efficacy, and
self-efficacy (Floyd, Prentice-Dunn, & Rogers, 2000). As already summarized, self-efficacy is
an individual's belief in their capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce the desired
adaptive action (Bandura, 1977; Witte, 1992). Response efficacy is instead the belief that
proposed adaptive actions will work and they will be effective at reducing the risk that is
As the previous attempts to increase both self- and response efficacy using efficacy
messages have been only partially successful (Hart & Feldman, 2014, 2016), it was proposed
that efficacy perceptions are resistant to change via cognitive processing (Hornsey, Chapman,
& Oelrichs, 2021) and more emotionally engaging interventions might be necessary to shift
efficacy beliefs – for example, using visual images that offer more affective processing
(O’Neill, 2013) or using strong narratives (Green, 2003).
Virtual reality and education
IVR is one promising tool for communicating efficacy, which might effectively tap
the emotional engagement and visual imagery that appears necessary for stimulating
individual change. IVR enables the creation of scenarios that resemble real-life situations and
reactions (Blascovich & Bailenson, 2011), and has been successfully applied in the context of
environmental awareness and action (e.g., Ahn, Fox, Dale, & Avant, 2015; Meijers et al.,
The Cognitive Affective Model of Immersive Learning (CAMIL; Makransky &
Petersen, 2021) provides a theoretical explanation of how IVR can influence learning and
behavior change. The CAMIL proposes that IVR has two main technical characteristics –
interaction and immersion – that promote the experiential affordances of presence (the sense
of being there) and agency (being in control of one's actions). Presence and agency, in turn,
can lead to higher levels of interest and self-efficacy, which act as drivers for knowledge
acquisition, transfer, and behavioral change – thereby enhancing learning outcomes. In short,
CAMIL provides a constructivist view of learning where IVR can increase learners’
involvement in the learning process by providing realistic experiences that they have control
Although CAMIL is concerned with learning in various contexts, the highlighted
processes of presence and agency seem especially relevant to climate change education. By
inducing a high sense of presence, IVR creates realistic experiences (Blascovich &
Bailenson, 2011) and thereby might bridge the gap between distant, intangible climate
impacts and current, concrete individual experiences (Breves & Schramm, 2021; Markowitz
& Bailenson, 2021). Indeed, the particular capacity of IVR to visualize the consequences of
climate change, for example, through accelerated time-lapses (Hsu, Tseng, & Kang, 2018) or
seeing climate affected landscapes like melting icebergs or bleaching coral reefs (Makransky
& Mayer, 2022; Markowitz, Laha, Perone, Pea, & Bailenson, 2018; Nim et al., 2016;
Petersen, Klingenberg, Mayer, & Makransky, 2020), has been shown to be an effective tool
for increasing knowledge, pro-environmental attitudes and awareness of the severity and
urgency of this risk. Moreover, VR-based interactive curricula are also gaining popularity in
climate change education, precisely because they are seen to promote an experientially-based
deeper understanding of ecology and ecosystems (Dickes et al., 2019; Reilly, McGivney,
Dede, & Grotzer, 2021).
Virtual reality-based climate change interventions
An increasing number of studies have investigated the different features of IVR
interventions that contribute to increased pro-environmental attitudes and behavior (Fauville,
Queiroz, & Bailenson, 2020). In general, the findings from this work suggest that IVR can be
more efficient in promoting pro-environmental attitudes compared to the less immersive
desktop interventions (Ahn, Bailenson, & Park, 2014; Ahn, Bostick, Ogle, Nowak, &
Bailenson, 2016; Breves & Schramm, 2021; Fonseca & Kraus, 2016; Soliman, Peetz, &
Davydenko, 2017). For example, IVR interventions have been shown to enhance the impact
of embodying animals on subsequent felt connections with nature (Ahn et al., 2016) and
reduce climate change's psychological distance via spatial presence (Breves & Schramm,
Experienced climate change educators (Fauville, Queiroz, Hambrick, Brown, &
Bailenson, 2021) consider invisibility, difficulty feeling empowered to act, or visualizing the
problem as crucial challenges of climate change education that can be efficiently targeted
using IVR. The second biggest challenge – empowerment can be linked to the perception of
efficacy and locus of control (the feeling that we have control over the action).
Two VR studies conducted by Ahn and colleagues (2015; 2014) specifically tested the
mediating role of efficacy-related constructs on pro-environmental behavior. The first study
(Ahn et al., 2014) focused on reducing paper consumption after actively cutting a tree in IVR,
seeing it on video, or reading about the experience. The results showed that the IVR
indirectly influenced paper consumption by increasing the locus of control (a concept
theoretically similar to self-efficacy) measured in follow-up. In the second study (2015), 114
participants either experienced cutting down a tree (a “loss” experience) or planting a tree (a
“gain” experience) with a low or high level of interactivity. Overall, their results confirmed
that gain-focused (planting trees) and interactive experiences enhanced response efficacy,
which in turn influenced paper consumption immediately after the intervention. Nevertheless,
self-reported behavior did not differ between the conditions, and the effects of the
intervention were only indirect via response efficacy. The authors account for this based on
their intervention’s lack of specific instructions for environmental action and propose that
future interventions should address this by providing individuals with the opportunity to
practice concrete behavior.
Another recent VR study drew on feedback to increase pro-environmental behavior.
As proposed before, real-time feedback can efficiently regulate behavior (e.g., onboard
feedback in cars can improve driver’s fuel economy: Sanguinetti, Queen, Yee, &
Akanesuvan, 2020). Drawing on this idea, Meijers et al. (2021) tested the effects of health
and environmental impact messages on the shopping behavior of 249 participants in a virtual
supermarket. Participants were instructed to choose products from four categories (fruit,
vegetables, fruit biscuits, sauces) with six options in each category. When selecting the
products, pop-up information was displayed differing in the appeal type (health vs.
environment vs. control factual information) and vividness (textual vs. image). The results
showed that these impact messages increased immediate pro-environmental choices in the
virtual supermarket relative to a control condition, and the effect was mediated through
response efficacy. However, this positive effect did not directly translate into subsequent
(self-reported) pro-environmental behavior outside of the VR supermarket, although there
were again indirect pathways to the pro-environmental behavior via response efficacy. The
manipulation of vividness did not result in the increased subjective perception of vividness,
suggesting that static pictures may not have been sufficient for enhancing this experiential
feature. It seems plausible that more immersive elements, like 360° videos or emotional
stories, might be more effective in creating a vivid experience that stimulates change.
Maximizing efficacy with IVR
The above-mentioned recent studies bring crucial insights into the underlying
processes of behavioral change through IVR and particularly point to roles for self- and
response efficacy. Nevertheless, the role of environmental self-efficacy, a key component of
our efficacy beliefs, and how it can be enhanced in VR remain unclear. As was already
proposed by Bandura, self-efficacy is a crucial predictor of successful behavioral change
(1977), and similar arguments have been made in the specific domain of environmental
behavior (Grothmann & Patt, 2005). A recent meta-analysis of factors motivating adaptive
climate change behavior (van Valkengoed & Steg, 2019) confirms that both response and
self-efficacy are important drivers of pro-environmental behavior. This raises the question of
what might maximize the capacity of IVR interventions to stimulate efficacy and produce
stronger effects on behavior.
Bandura defined key sources of self-efficacy as performance accomplishments,
vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological states. Of these, performance
accomplishment is thought to be one of the strongest predictors of self-efficacy (Bandura,
1977). IVR is a perfect tool for enabling performance accomplishments through a first-person
interactive experience (Makransky, Borre-Gude, & Mayer, 2019; Makransky & Petersen,
2021). Directly linking individual decisions and actions to their outcomes is a way of
providing performance accomplishment. Consistent with this idea, in participatory research
by Fauville et al. (2021), experienced climate educators proposed that being able to see the
impact of everyday decisions, for example through displaying different virtual scenarios,
could be an efficient tool to empower students to take action. Previous VR research also
shows that being able to see the real-time, gradual consequences of our behavior can
stimulate behavior change (Ahn, 2015; Ahn, Hahm, & Johnsen, 2019; Hsu et al., 2018), and
this effect can be even stronger when using more vivid and concrete images (Bailey et al.,
2015; Chirico, Scurati, Maffi, Huang, & Gaggioli, 2020). In addition to maximizing this kind
of performance feedback, providing participants with explicit guidelines about the impact of
their individual actions (Ahn et al., 2015) should further positively contribute to feelings of
empowerment and increase specific pro-environmental intentions.
With the above ideas in mind, the current study investigates how communicating not
only negative consequences but also our ability to make a positive change can efficiently
increase environmental self-efficacy and consequently influence other drivers of pro-
environmental action.
Current Study
Following the CAMIL (Makransky & Petersen, 2021) and instructional design
principles for multimedia learning (Mayer & Fiorella, 2021), we developed an immersive and
interactive VR intervention with high fidelity to increase awareness about the importance of a
sustainable diet for mitigating climate change. In addition, attending to the call for more IVR
studies included in actual teaching or learning interventions (Radianti, Majchrzak, Fromm, &
Wohlgenannt, 2020), we present an experimental study that was an integrated educational
activity in a middle school context.
As in previous work (e.g., Meijers et al., 2021), we aimed to increase participants’
efficacy by visualizing the impact of selected foods on the natural environment. Because the
previous research also suggests that gradual feedback can be efficient for eliciting behavioral
change (Ahn, 2015; Ahn et al., 2019; Bailey et al., 2015; Hsu et al., 2018), we showed
participants continuous environmental change following general food choices accompanied
by an emotional narrative. The latter, in particular, moves beyond the static imagery used by
Meijers and colleagues (2021) to create a more vivid and emotionally engaging experience.
Furthermore, the presented simulation focused on a broader range of foods, including high
impact categories, such as beef products, cheese, and fish, to increase the educational and
environmental potential of the simulation.
Our basic intervention was intended to facilitate the main IVR affordances of agency
and presence by providing an interactive and multisensory experience of visualizing the
impact of our food choices on the natural environment. In addition, by visualizing
participants’ carbon footprint, we aim to communicate the impact of human activity on
climate change and empower the students by eliciting their response efficacy as proposed by
previous studies (Fauville et al., 2021; Meijers et al., 2021; Nim et al., 2016). Furthermore,
compared to the previous study focused on increasing response efficacy and thus facilitating
the switch to more sustainable eating, we focused on (1) gradual and more vivid feedback
accompanied by emotional narrative and providing clear guidelines about the different
variety of food and their environmental impacts (2). Thus the intervention is designed in a
way to increase not only factual knowledge but also pro-environmental intentions and
transfer. As a result, we expected that experiencing this IVR intervention would, relative to
baseline, produce significant increases in:
1. pro-environmental intentions (Hypothesis 1),
2. knowledge gain about carbon emissions (Hypothesis 2),
3. transfer (Hypothesis 3).
We were also interested in whether an optimized Awareness + Efficacy version of the
intervention designed according to environmental psychology findings would be maximally
effective. In optimizing the intervention, we were guided by theories that highlight self-
efficacy (Bandura, 1982; Bostrom, Hayes, & Crosman, 2019; Grothmann & Patt, 2005;
Witte, 1992) as being central to behavior change, and therefore tried to engage this pathway
through a feedback loop in the simulation. Following meta-analytic evidence (Sheeran,
Harris, & Epton, 2014) and recent findings of the mediating mechanisms in VR studies (Ahn
et al., 2015; Meijers et al., 2021), we expected that adding a efficacy induction would further
increase the effectiveness of the intervention. Compared to the recent study by Meijers and
colleagues (2021), which only showed the negative consequences of selected foods
increasing response-efficacy, the Awareness + Efficacy version of the simulation actively
supported the participants to select more sustainable foods and consequently allowed them to
experience gradual restoration of nature with the aim to foster their environmental self-
This resulted in the following hypotheses:
4. the Awareness + Efficacy condition will significantly increase pro-environmental
intentions relative to Awareness alone (Hypothesis 4)
5. the Awareness + Efficacy condition will significantly increase transfer relative to the
Awareness condition (Hypothesis 5)
Finally, to improve our understanding of psychological processes underlying possible
increases in pro-environmental intentions and successful transfer, we investigated the
mediating pathways to personal change. Since our intervention aimed to increase both
response and self-efficacy, we hypothesized that:
6. the effect of the Awareness + Efficacy condition on behavioral intentions will be
mediated via increasing self-efficacy and response-efficacy (Hypothesis 6).
7. the effect of Awareness + Efficacy condition on transfer would be mediated by an
increase in self-efficacy and response efficacy (Hypothesis 7).
Ninety students aged 13 to 16 (M = 14.29, SD=0.64) and attending either 7th grade
(19) or 8th grade participated (71) in the experiment. They reported themselves to be female
(49 %), male (40 %), non-binary (5.5 %) or preferred not to provide this information (5.5 %).
The study was conducted in three Danish middle schools in the English language with
supporting personnel to answer participants’ questions. The experiment was incorporated as a
part of students’ mandatory course.
IVR scenario
Before the start of the IVR simulation, participants indicated their gender using the
Oculus Quest controller. Then, the IVR simulation started in the virtual living room, where
participants were instructed to use a tablet to select the food they would like to purchase for
breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks (see Figure 1A). After this, participants visited the Rocky
Mountain National Park (Figure 1B) as the simulation was initially created for a US
audience, and the Rocky Mountain was chosen as the most iconic park that is also very
susceptible to climate change consequences. By traveling 30 years to the future, they
experienced the gradual devastation of the natural environment according to the food-related
emissions released in the atmosphere (Figure 1C). Finally, during the direct instruction phase,
a pedagogical agent in the form of a park ranger instructed the participants about the
environmental consequences of the specific foods and informed the participant about his/her
current dietary carbon footprint (see Figure 1D). The whole experience was narrated (see
Supplementary 1) by the pedagogical agent and accompanied by ambient nature sounds to
support presence.
In the Awareness condition (see Figure 2), the IVR simulation stopped after
participants responded to a presence and emotions questionnaire (for details, see
Supplementary 2). In the Awareness + Efficacy condition, participants had the opportunity to
reselect the food in the shopping simulation and were instructed to decrease the carbon
footprint as much as possible. In the reselection phase, the foods in the shopping simulation
were highlighted according to their dietary carbon footprint from light green to dark red, the
participants were not otherwise forced to make more sustainable choices. According to the
new choices, the natural environment gradually changed based on what would happen if
everyone adopted the same diet. The ambient change was accompanied by agent verbal
feedback. The simulation is programmed in 10 levels from complete degradation to complete
regeneration based on the student’s food choices. Therefore, the Awareness + Efficacy
condition allowed users to gain feedback about their behavior, and the feedback was
visualized as experiencing the future. This is an example of a first-person performance
accomplishment which is highlighted as the most effective way to build self-efficacy by
Bandura (1982).
Following the redundancy and modality principle (Mayer & Fiorella, 2021), the
voiceover narration was used with only a limited amount of textual information. Consistently
with personalization and voice principles (Mayer & Fiorella, 2021), the professionally
narrated pedagogical agent used a friendly and conversational style to make the simulation
authentic and immersive. Consistent with typical IVR research, we measured presence on a
five-point scale, and the average perceived presence was 3.27 (SD = 0.74) and 3.56 (SD =
0.81) for the Awareness and the Awareness + Efficacy conditions, respectively.
Participants were asked about their basic demographic characteristics (age and school
grade) in the pre-treatment questionnaire. In the pre-and post-treatment questionnaire,
participants filled out questions about their level of self-efficacy on a 5-point scale (Strongly
Agree - Strongly Disagree) using two items from Hunter and Röös (2016), e.g.,” I feel
capable of adopting more climate-friendly eating habits.” Students also responded to three
items about response efficacy (Hunter & Röös, 2016), e.g., “Consumption of food with a low
carbon footprint is an effective measure to mitigate climate change.” on a 5-point scale from
Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree.
Main Outcome Variables
In a knowledge test, participants were asked to indicate the level of emissions
associated with the production of twelve specific foods, ranging from Very low (< 1 kg CO2
per kg) to Very high (> 15 kg CO2 per kg). Students could receive one point for every correct
answer with a total score calculated as the sum of the individual scores (maximum = 12,
minimum = 0). For details, see Supplementary 2.
Behavioral intentions were measured by asking students four questions about their
future eating behavior (e.g., “In the future, I intend to cut the number of meals with meat to
half.”). Students responded on a 5-point scale (Strongly agree - Strongly disagree). For
details, see Supplementary 2.
Transfer is defined as the ability to generalize the learned knowledge or skills
(Subedi, 2004) and successfully apply and adapt it to different contexts (Presseau & Frenay,
2004). Since the main objective of the simulation is to teach students about the dietary
consequences of their food choices, transfer was assessed by asking participants how many
times during the week they would like to eat food from 13 main food categories (e.g., pasta,
rice, beef, fish, sweets, etc.; see Supplementary 2) if they could choose the food by
themselves. Then, using the average carbon footprint for each category (CONCITO, 2021),
we calculated the sum of dietary carbon footprint for each participant and reversed the score
((x) = max(x) + 1 – x ) in order to generate a score on which higher numbers indicated higher
transfer. This measure can be understood as reflecting horizontal transfer, where we ask
students to apply the gained knowledge and attitudes in a different contextual situation – the
students transfer the behavior from the IVR simulation to their preferred behavior in real-life
(Subedi, 2004). Making more sustainable choices in the subsequent task requires that the
student has gained knowledge related to the carbon emissions associated with specific foods
(the primary learning content of the simulation), but also has an intention to use that
knowledge, which requires adopting a positive attitude towards a climate-friendly diet.
The IVR simulation was presented to the students using Oculus Quest or Oculus
Quest 2 (the distribution of the Oculus Quest and Oculus Quest 2 was balanced across the
conditions). The participants interacted with the IVR using the controllers either by point-
and-click when responding to the questionnaire or simply by touching the virtual tablet in the
IVR environment with their index finger to select food.
The study was approved by the Research Ethics Committee at the Faculty of Social
Sciences, University of Copenhagen, approval number IP-IRB/05032021. Before the IVR
intervention, the students were asked to fill out the pre-questionnaire on their own devices
(laptop or smartphone). After completing the questionnaire, participants were randomly
assigned to the Awareness condition (i.e., the control; n = 46) or the Awareness + Efficacy
condition (i.e., the intervention; n = 44), and after finishing the IVR intervention, the students
completed the post-treatment questions and were offered to ask any questions regarding the
experience. The IVR intervention lasted on average 12.33 minutes (SD = 2.48) and 16.36
minutes (SD = 6.22) in the Awareness condition and Awareness + Efficacy condition,
Statistical analyses
Statistical analyses were performed using R (R Core Team, 2020). To investigate
Hypotheses 1-3, we used Wilcoxon signed-rank test as the outcome variables were not
normally distributed. To test Hypotheses 4 and 5, we investigated linear regression models
with intentions and transfer postscores adjusted for pretest scores. To identify potential
pathways that lead to attitude change and transfer, we investigated the role of two essential
predictors of pro-environmental behavior - self-efficacy and response efficacy. We ran
regression and mediation analysis using PROCESS macro in R to explain the observed effects
of Efficacy induction on our main outcome variables. Indirect effects were tested for
significance using bootstrapping procedures, with the unstandardized indirect effects
computed using 10000 bootstrapped samples and 95% confidence intervals computed by
determining the indirect effects at the 2.5th and 97.5th percentiles. For the purposes of
mediation analyses, we used posttest scores.
Data Availability Statement: The datasets generated and analyzed during the current study are
available via the Open Science Framework: (Plechatá, 2022).
Baseline differences between groups
Before the main analysis, we focused on investigating the pre-treatment group
characteristics and outcome measures to ensure the randomization procedure was successful.
Independent t-tests showed that the Awareness + Efficacy group (M = 14.3, SD = 0.68) and
Awareness group (M = 14.2, SD = 0.60) did not differ on mean age, t(85.693)=-.75, p = .455. A
chi-square test showed that although the Awareness + Efficacy group had relatively more
women than the Awareness group, this difference was not significant, X2 (N = 90) = 7.632, p
= .054. Nonetheless, as a robustness check, we included gender as a covariate in our analyses.
In case the model did not differ, we reported only the results of the analysis without the
Independent groups t-tests showed no significant differences between the Awareness
+ Efficacy group and Awareness only group in pre-treatment self-efficacy, t(79.49)= -1.41, p
= .162, or response-efficacy scores, t(84.77)= -0.902, p = 0.37, intentions, t(87.49)= -1.561, p
= .122, knowledge, t(87.25)= -0.23, p = .815, transfer, t(86.58)= -1.367, p =.175.
Effects of IVR on intentions, knowledge, and transfer
As hypothesized, we found a significant increase in intentions from the pretest (Mdn
= 12.5, IQR = 5.0) to the posttest (Mdn = 14.0, IQR = 5.75), V = 1470, p < .001, r = 0.40.
Similarly, the analysis confirmed a significant increase in knowledge scores from pre- (Mdn =
3.0, IQR = 2.75) to post-intervention (Mdn = 4, IQR = 3), V = 457, p < .001, r = 0.45. Finally,
transfer also increased from pretest (Mdn = 414.66, IQR = 145.57) to posttest (Mdn = 455.94,
IQR =139.04, V = 3373, p < .001, r = 0.56. These analyses therefore confirm hypotheses 1, 2,
Value-added effects of efficacy induction
In the Efficacy + Awareness condition, we attempted to induce students’
environmental efficacy by showing them the impact of their personal choices on the natural
environment (response efficacy) and by providing them with the positive experience of nature
restoring itself (self-efficacy).
Before the main analyses, we focused on the behavioral change in the IVR simulation
and the impact of the conditions on self- and response efficacy. The analysis confirmed that
the participants in the Awareness + Efficacy group, significantly reduced their dietary carbon
footprints from the first selection (M = 6.12, SD = 5.03) to the second selection (M = 1.23,
SD = 2.95) by 4.89, 95% CI
6.13 ¿
, with large effect size, d =
0.93, 95% CI [0.57, 1.28]. Therefore, we considered the efficacy manipulation successful.
Furthermore, we investigated the impact of the IVR conditions on self-efficacy and response
efficacy. A regression analysis controlling for pretest self-efficacy score showed that the
Efficacy + Awareness condition increased posttest self-efficacy to a larger extent compared
to the Awareness condition, b = 0.66, 95% CI [0.16, 1.17], p = .011. Analyzing the pre-post
differences in the self-efficacy for the both conditions separately, we confirmed that the
participants in the Awareness + Efficacy condition increased self-efficacy by 1.02 points,
95% CI [1.49, 0.55], t(43)= 4.38, p < .001, which corresponds to medium effect size, d =
0.67, 95% CI [0.33, 1.00], compared to the participants in the Awareness only condition that
increased self-efficacy by 0.46 points, 95% CI [0.85, 0.07], t(45)= 2.36, p = .023, which
corresponds to small effect size, d = 0.31,95% CI [0, 0.62]. Conversely, when controlling for
pre-test score, the analysis showed that the Awareness + Efficacy condition did not result in a
significantly larger increase in response efficacy compared to the Awareness only condition,
b = 0.61, 95% CI [-0.04, 1.26], t(87) = 1.85, p = .068, indicating that the Efficacy
manipulation was more effective in inducing self-efficacy than response efficacy.
A regression analysis controlling for pretest intentions showed that the Awareness +
Efficacy condition increased posttest intentions by 0.35 points on the five-point scale
compared to the only Awareness condition, b = 0.35, 95% CI [0.13, 0.58], p = .003 (see
Figure 3). This pattern supports Hypothesis 4.
We ran the same model on posttest transfer (controlling for the pretest score). The
results indicate that the Awareness + Efficacy condition significantly increased transfer
compared to the Awareness condition, b = 35.44, 95% CI [66.93, 3.95], t(87) = -2.24, p
= .028, see Figure 4. This result supports Hypothesis 5.
Mediational pathways to the intention and transfer
To explain these effects of the Efficacy induction on intentions and transfer, we ran a
mediation analysis positioning self-efficacy and response-efficacy as mediators between
condition and outcome.
As Figure 5 illustrates, self-efficacy was a significant predictor of intentions, and the
unstandardized indirect effect linking the condition to intentions via self-efficacy was also
significant. The bias-corrected bootstrapped confidence interval of this indirect path using
10,000 samples did not span zero, 95% CI [0.41, 0.17]. Response efficacy was not a
significant predictor of intentions, and as such, this indirect path was also not significant.
Therefore, Hypothesis 6 was partially supported.
Running the same model with the transfer as the outcome variable, we again found a
significant indirect effect of self-efficacy on the transfer (see Figure 6 for details). The bias-
corrected bootstrapped confidence interval of the indirect path using 10,000 samples did not
span zero, 95% CI [2.54, 55.60]. Again, there was no relationship between response-efficacy
and outcome, and therefore no indirect pathway via this variable. We, therefore, partially
accept Hypothesis 7.
Empirical contributions
We investigated the effect of an IVR simulation that focused on the impact of food
choices on the natural environment in a sample of middle school students. The IVR
intervention resulted in a significant pre-to post-treatment increase in both our conditions on
all measured variables: intentions, knowledge gain, and knowledge transfer with moderate to
large effect size (r = 0.4-0.56).
Compared to previous studies (Bailey et al., 2015; Hsu et al., 2018; Meijers et al.,
2021), which have found that being able to see the negative impact of choices or behavior on
the natural environment can increase pro-environmental intentions via response efficacy, we
investigated if experiencing the positive effects of revised choices on the environment could
further boost self-efficacy and its behavioral consequences. In the tested “value-added”
Awareness + Efficacy condition, the participants were allowed to change the future by
making more pro-environmental decisions. Consistent with the previous research,
participants reselected foods with significantly lower environmental impact in the virtual
simulation when the product impact had been displayed. Importantly, as hypothesized, the
results showed that the Awareness + Efficacy condition increased pro-environmental
intentions and knowledge transfer to a larger extent than the Awareness only condition.
Our results show that interactive and high fidelity IVR experience that induced self-
efficacy through the positive experience of consequences of personal sustainable food
choices has a larger impact on pro-environmental intentions and transfer than just visualizing
the collective negative impact on the natural environment that was a method applied in
previous VR studies (Hsu et al., 2018; Meijers et al., 2021). Furthermore, mediation analysis
showed that the effect of efficacy induction on intentions and transfer was fully mediated via
self-efficacy. This is consistent with Bandura’s theory that self-efficacy can be increased by
performance accomplishments (Bandura, 1977) and with the findings that self-efficacy is a
crucial predictor of eating behavior (Shannon, Bagby, Wang, & Trenkner, 1990; Strachan &
Brawley, 2009).
Although the Awareness + Efficacy condition enhanced intentions and transfer over
the Awareness alone, the students in this study significantly increased their knowledge about
carbon emissions regardless of the applied condition. These results are consistent with the
previous studies showing that visualizing the negative impact of climate change on the
natural environment can increase knowledge gain (Markowitz et al., 2018; Petersen et al.,
Theoretical contributions
Our findings support socio-cognitive theories emphasizing the role of efficacy in
behavioral change interventions (Ajzen, 1991; Grothmann & Patt, 2005; Stern et al., 1999).
However, converse to these approaches, we did not find any mediating role for response-
efficacy in intention or transfer change.
Response efficacy has been linked to public engagement with climate issues through
policy support and donations (Thaker, Howe, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2019) rather than
personal actions, which tends to be more strongly linked to self-efficacy (Shannon et al.,
1990; Strachan & Brawley, 2009). Given the variety of targets to which efficacy can attach –
self, collective, response – and the importance of all of these for genuine and sustained
climate action, we do not rule out any of these processes and encourage future research to
differentiate the interventions that might drive change in each form of efficacy, as well as
their consequences.
As we did not measure objective behavior, we cannot be confident that the students
would adhere to their intentions, and similarly, we cannot rule out a possible role of response
efficacy in supporting longer-term behavior change. Importantly, our study manipulation
focused on the addition of positive experiences due to our personal choices, which is more in
line with the concept of environmental self-efficacy. Students experienced the negative
impact of overall food choices on the natural environment in both conditions, which is in
contrast with Meijers et al. (2021). Thus it is crucial to interpret the results of this study as an
investigation of how to maximize the impact of VR simulations on pro-environmental
behavior by experiencing self-efficacy, thereby consequently minimizing the risk of
maladaptive behavior.
Practical contributions
Our results imply that when applying IVR methods in climate change education,
visualizing the climate change consequences by using exaggerated feedback can effectively
increase students’ knowledge about carbon emissions. This finding is consistent with studies
showing the impact of climate change by traveling to highly impacted places on knowledge
gain and interest (Markowitz et al., 2018; Petersen et al., 2020) and by showing the impact of
specific behavior on the natural environment (Hsu et al., 2018; Meijers et al., 2021).
Unfortunately, due to the missing control group, we cannot draw any conclusions about its
effectiveness compared to standard learning methods – such as those that do not use
immersive media.
IVR has been argued to be a suitable tool for promoting learning transfer (Cooper,
Millela, Cant, White, & Meyer, 2021; Liu, Dede, Huang, & Richards, 2017; Narciso, Bessa,
Melo, & Vasconcelos-Raposo, 2019), as it offers the possibility for the endless practice of
desired skills that can be expensive, dangerous, or even impossible in the real-world setting
(Bailenson, 2018). Moreover, VR enables training and learning in different contextual
situations with a high level of presence and agency (Makransky & Petersen, 2021). Our
results indicate that the Awareness + Efficacy induction significantly increased transfer in
comparison to the Awareness condition. That implies that IVR mastery experience (Bandura,
1982) is essential to advance the transfer of learned knowledge. Indeed the indirect effect of
the Awareness + Efficacy condition via an increase in self-efficacy confirms the importance
of the experience of success in the knowledge transfer. As was proposed by Bossard et al.
(2008), a successful transfer can be interpreted as the IVR efficacy measure as a learning
tool. In our case, this means that self-efficacy experience can increase not only factual
knowledge but also willingness to act according to that knowledge.
More generally, this study contributes to current discussions of the “green transition”
by providing insights into the methods that might be useful for communicating the issues and
the urgency of substantial lifestyle changes to younger generations. Although IVR may have
one time seemed a niche education tool that time is rapidly passing. In response to the recent
pandemic, lockdowns, and the reliance on remote learning and technology, these kinds of
interventions may become more routine – and knowledge of the processes and pathways to
enhanced learning through such technologies is even more important.
Limitations and future directions
One of the limitations of the current study is the absence of a media control group
which does not allow us to conclude if the IVR intervention would be more or less effective
for increasing students’ knowledge, intentions, or transfer than other, less-immersive methods
(e.g., slide shows, desktop delivery). Recent findings suggest that it is more relevant to
investigate how, when, and why IVR is effective, in addition to the basic question of whether
it is (Makransky, Petersen, & Klingenberg, 2020; Petersen et al., 2020). Nevertheless, future
studies could focus on conducting media and method comparisons to investigate whether the
impact of efficacy inductions is consistent across media and how variations in presence
across media formats might modify this.
In so doing, it would be important to work towards more balanced presentations of
content across conditions. Inevitably, our Awareness + Efficacy condition was longer than
the Awareness condition. Ideally, one would try to separate the effects of content length,
format, and the psychological processes targeted by that content. Furthermore, to conclude on
the effectiveness of IVR to enhance behavioral competencies, it would be necessary to
measure the actual behavior and not just intentions – for example, by offering participants to
choose between vegetarian and non-vegetarian options (Fonseca & Kraus, 2016). Even
though according to the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991), the intentions are the
direct antecedent of actual behavior, a gap between intentions and actual behavior is well
known (Faries, 2016; Grimmer & Miles, 2017; Sheeran & Webb, 2016). Thus the impact of
the intervention and role of the adaptive capacity, especially response-efficacy, on the actual
food choices should be further investigated. Additionally, future studies could focus on
positive spillover effects by measuring factors such as intentions to adhere to different types
of pro-environmental behavior.
Furthermore, the results of mediation analyses should be interpreted with caution, and
further research is necessary. First, the applied self-efficacy measure consisted of two items
adapted from a previously standardized longer scale (Hunter & Röös, 2016). Therefore,
future studies should investigate self-efficacy manipulations in more detail, potentially using
a more thoroughly standardized self-efficacy measure. Second, the sample size could be
considered small for drawing conclusions about mediation pathways. Third, the specificity of
the sample (middle school students) and the context of the experiment (being a part of the
school curriculum) could further influence the participants’ motivation.
Therefore, this study provides preliminary results on how the specific IVR design
could indirectly influence environmental literacy via its effect on pro-environmental drivers,
and these mechanisms should be further investigated.
Our results indicate that IVR intervention can be an effective tool for increasing
knowledge about sustainable foods and pro-environmental intentions in middle school
students and that this knowledge can be successfully transferred. Additionally, during the
IVR simulation, participants also selected food items with a significantly lower carbon
footprint (d = 0.93) compared to their initial choice. Furthermore, the value-added Awareness
+ Efficacy condition results demonstrate that giving students an option to change their food
behavior and seeing its impact in the IVR simulation further increases their pro-
environmental intentions and transfer of learning through an enhanced sense of self-efficacy.
Disclosure and Acknowledgments
We would like to thank the students who participated in the study and all the teachers
who helped with the study organization and students recruitment, namely: Lone Olesen, Helle
Skånstrøm Stjerneby, and Jonas Traczyk Jensen.
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Figure 1. IVR scenario preview. The figure depicts the main IVR simulation phases: food selection where participant
indicate their preferred food choices (A), traveling to the Rocky Mountain national park with the pedagogical agent (B),
experiencing nature degradation according to the current dietary emissions (C), and receiving information about the
environmental impact of specific foods during the direct instruction phase (D).
Figure 2. Study design. In the basic version of the IVR simulation, the participants chose their preferred foods, traveled to
Rocky Mountain, witnessed the natural degradation, and were educated about the emissions of specific foods in a highly
immersive virtual environment. In the Awareness + Efficacy condition participants were further instructed to reselect more
pro-environmental foods which allowed them to experience restoration of the natural environment. The last two phases (4
and 5) allowed participants to experience self-efficacy.
Figure 3. Mean posttest intentions for each condition. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals in a normal distribution.
Figure 4. Mean posttest transfer for each condition. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals in a normal distribution.
Figure 5. Schematic diagram of mediation analysis results. Self-efficacy fully mediated the effect of Self-Efficacy induction
on behavioral intentions. Path values are standardized regression coefficients. Significance levels are as follows: *: p<.05,
**: p<.01, ***: p<.001.
Figure 6. Schematic diagram of mediation analysis results. Self-efficacy fully mediated the effect of Self-Efficacy induction
on Transfer. Path values are standardized regression coefficients. Significance levels are as follows: *: p<.05, **: p<.01,
***: p<.001.
Full-text available
The goal of the current study was to investigate the effects of an immersive virtual reality (IVR) science simulation on learning in a higher educational setting, and to assess whether using self-explanation has benefits for knowledge gain. A sample of 79 undergraduate biology students (40 females, 37 males, 2 non-binary) learned about next-generation sequencing using an IVR simulation that lasted approximately 45 minutes. Students were randomly assigned to one of two instructional conditions: self-explanation (n = 41) or control (n = 38). The self-explanation group engaged in a 10 minute written self-explanation task after the IVR biology lesson, while the control group rested. The results revealed that the IVR simulation led to a significant increase in knowledge from the pre- to post-test (ßPosterior = 3.29). There were no differences between the self-explanation and control groups on knowledge gain, procedural, or conceptual transfer. Finally, the results indicate that the self-explanation group reported significantly higher intrinsic cognitive load (ßPosterior= 0.35), and extraneous cognitive load (ßPosterior= 0.37), and significantly lower germane load (ßPosterior= -0.38) than the control group. The results suggest that the IVR lesson was effective for learning, but adding a written self-explanation task did not increase learning after a long IVR lesson.
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