A virtual reality paradigm as an analogue to real-life trauma: Its effectiveness compared with the trauma film paradigm

Cuperus A.A., Klaassen F., Hagenaars M.A. & Engelhard I.M. (2017), A virtual reality paradigm as an analogue to real-life trauma: Its effectiveness compared with the trauma film paradigm, European Journal of Psychotraumatology 8(S1): 1338106.

Background: The trauma film paradigm (TFP) is a well-established method to study the effects of analogue psychological trauma under controlled laboratory settings. It has been used to examine pre-, peri-, and post-trauma processes, and to create and test interventions. A possible drawback is that watching films is a somewhat passive endeavour that lacks active behavioural engagement. Virtual reality (VR) may provide a better alternative. Like the TFP, VR allows for experimental control. In addition, it can induce a greater ‘feeling of presence’ and allows interaction with the environment, enabling research on action–reaction associations.

Objective: We aimed to validate the utility of a VR paradigm as an experimental model to study psychological trauma by comparing its effectiveness with the TFP.

Method: One group of participants (N = 25) was shown an aversive film, and another group (N = 25) moved through a VR scene. Main outcome measures were intrusion frequency assessed with a 7-day diary and self-rated vividness and emotionality of recalled memories related to the film or VR scene.

Results: The results indicate that the film and VR scene were equally effective in inducing vivid and intrusive memories. However, self-reported emotional intensity appeared to be higher for memories related to the film than for memories related to the VR scene. Conclusions: Perhaps the film was more effective in inducing emotional memories than the VR scene due to its more aversive content. However, the VR scene seemed equally effective in inducing vivid and intrusive memories, and merits further exploration in light of ethical considerations (less aversive content) and other presumably beneficial qualities (e.g. inducing a greater feeling of presence and allowing interaction with the environment).

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  • PTSD
  • Intrusion
  • Trauma film paradigm
  • Virtual reality