The use of virtual reality permits individuals’ reactions to standard controlled environments to be studied. It may therefore provide a means for understanding the interpretations of experience relevant to clinical disorders. The use of this technology for understanding persecutory ideation has not been investigated. A pilot study was undertaken to examine whether individuals have persecutory thoughts about virtual reality characters under controlled conditions and if there are factors that predict the occurrence of such thoughts.
Twenty-four nonclinical participants entered a neutral virtual environment that contained computer-generated people. The participants completed dimensional assessments of items related to psychiatric symptoms and their thoughts about the virtual characters.
Positive views about the virtual characters were common. However, a number of participants had ideas of reference and ideas of persecution about the virtual characters. Individuals who had persecutory thoughts about the virtual characters had significantly higher levels of interpersonal sensitivity and anxiety.
The study provides direct evidence that individuals attribute mental states to virtual reality characters. Important for the study of clinical phenomena, some individuals have thoughts of a persecutory nature about virtual characters. Additionally, the findings indicate that feelings of interpersonal vulnerability and anxiety may directly contribute to the development of persecutory ideation in response to essentially neutral contexts. Virtual reality may prove to be a valuable methodology for developing an understanding of persecutory ideation.
*Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, Denmark Hill, London and South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, UK;
†Department of Computer Science, University College London, London, UK;
‡Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, University College London, Royal Free and University College Medical School, London, and Camden and Islington Mental Health and Social Care NHS Trust, UK;
§Division of Psychological Medicine, GKT Medical School, King’s College London, St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, UK; and
¶School Of Medicine, Health Policy and Practice, University of East Anglia, Norwich, and Norfolk Mental Health Care NHS Trust, UK.
Reprints: Dr. Freeman, Department of Psychology, PO Box 77, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, Denmark Hill, London, SE5 8AF, UK.
Supported by a program grant from the Wellcome Trust (No. 062452) and by the UK EPSRC funded Equator Interdisciplinary Research collaboration http://www.equator.ac.uk.