A new study looks at how images of coffee's origins affect the perception of its premiumness and quality.
- Images can affect how people perceive the quality of a product.
- In a new study, researchers show using virtual reality that images of farms positively influence the subjects' experience of coffee.
- The results provide insights on the psychology and power of marketing.
Are coffee consumers influenced by the imagery and story around the production of the drink? Such was one of the central questions of a new study that explored the power of marketing on how "premium" aficionados consider coffee to be.
The researchers set out to explore whether the origins of the coffee can affect the perception of its quality in the minds of the drinkers. In particular, they focused on the concept of terroir, the special characteristics conferred upon the coffee by the specific terrain in which it was grown.
"Terroir is more than a mere geographical link between product and land," write the authors. "It relates to the idea that products are a unique expression of different environmental and sociocultural characteristics of a specific place." Thus, focusing a customer's attention on the environment in which the coffee was grown might make the product seem more authentic and of better quality.
Therefore, the researchers examined the effect of images on the coffee-drinking experience in three experiments. The study was carried out by the food scientist Francisco Barbosa Escobar from Aarhus University in Denmark and marketing experts Olivia Petit from the Kedge Business School in Marseille, France, and Carlos Velasco from the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, Norway. Incidentally, Norwegians are among the world's top coffee consumers, with an average Norwegian adult consuming around 4 cups of coffee a day, reports Statistics Norway.
The first experiment involved 770 non-expert participants from the UK. They were shown online images and descriptions of four different specialty coffees, traded by a Norwegian coffee company. The researchers found that coffees with pictures of farms were rated higher in premiumness by the subjects than coffees with pictures of cities.
For the second and third experiments, the study used virtual reality environments of Times Square in New York City and a farm in Kenya as well as a control setting of a white room. The second experiment engaged 143 non-expert participants recruited via a behavioral studies platform at the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, Norway. The participants were asked to smell a sample of quality ground coffee from Kenya while at the same time traversing a virtual reality atmosphere. The subjects were then asked to rate the coffee.
Image (A) shows the instruments used in Experiment 2: Oculus GO virtual reality (VR) headset and sample coffee bag. The other panels show the VR environments used in the study - (B) farm, (C) city, and (D) control.Credit: Escobar / Petit / Velasco, Frontiers in Psychology
Compared to the control (white room), subjects in the farm VR atmosphere rated the coffee as more acidic. Conversely, subjects rated coffee as sweeter when inside the control VR atmosphere compared to the city VR atmosphere. Furthermore, coffee was considered more premium when subjects were in the farm VR atmosphere compared to the control, but there was no difference in premiumness score between farm and city.
For the third experiment, the research team involved 34 people who were professionals in the coffee industry. They were asked to taste and score Kenyan coffee while being in the same city and farm VR environments used in the previous experiment. The results revealed a strong effect of atmosphere on how much the experts enjoyed their experience, with a much greater preference for the farm setting versus the control environment of a white room.
But the different VR atmospheres had little effect on how the experts rated the premiumness of the coffee. The researchers believe that "given their specialized knowledge, coffee professionals examined more objective attributes of the coffee and could discriminate intrinsic factors relevant for the assessment of the coffee from irrelevant extrinsic cues."
The researchers think their results can lead to developing more immersive marketing experiences in virtual reality, which could be groundbreaking in many industries. A premium experience can lead to customers paying premium prices.
What happens when simulation theory becomes more than a fascinating thought experiment?
- Simulation theory proposes that our world is likely a simulation created by beings with super-powerful computers.
- In "A Glitch in the Matrix," filmmaker Rodney Ascher explores the philosophy behind simulation theory, and interviews a handful of people who believe the world is a simulation.
- "A Glitch in the Matrix" premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is now available to stream online.
Are you living in a computer simulation?
If you've spent enough time online, you've probably encountered this question. Maybe it was in one of the countless articles on simulation theory. Maybe it was during the chaos of 2020, when Twitter users grew fond of saying things like "we're living in the worst simulation" or "what a strange timeline we're living in." Or maybe you saw that clip of Elon Musk telling an audience at a tech conference that the probability of us not living in a simulation is "one in billions."
It might sound ludicrous. But Twitter memes and quotes from "The Matrix" aside, simulation theory has some lucid arguments to back it up. The most cited explanation came in 2003, when Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper claiming at least one of the following statements is true:
- The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "posthuman" stage
- Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof)
- We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation
The basic idea: Considering that computers are growing exponentially powerful, it's reasonable to think that future civilizations might someday be able to use supercomputers to create simulated worlds. These worlds would probably be populated by simulated beings. And those beings might be us.
In the new documentary "A Glitch in the Matrix", filmmaker Rodney Ascher sends viewers down the rabbit hole of simulation theory, exploring the philosophical ideas behind it, and the stories of a handful of people for whom the theory has become a worldview.
The film features, for example, a man called Brother Laeo Mystwood, who describes how a series of strange coincidences and events — a.k.a "glitches in the matrix" — led him to believe the world is a simulation. Another interviewee, a man named Paul Gude, said the turning point for him came in childhood when he was watching people sing at a church service; the "absurdity of the situation" caused him to realize "none of this is real."
But others have darker reactions after coming to believe the world is a simulation. For example, if you believe you're in a simulation, you might also think that some people in the simulation are less real than you. A few of the film's subjects describe the idea of other people being "chemical robots" or "non-player characters," a video-game term used to describe characters who behave according to code.
The documentary's most troubling sequences features the story of Joshua Cooke. In 2003, Cooke was 19 years old and suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness when he became obsessed with "The Matrix." He believed he was living in a simulation. On a February night, he shot and killed his adoptive parents with a shotgun. The murder trial spawned what's now known as the "Matrix defense," a version of the insanity defense in which a defendant claims to have been unable to distinguish reality from simulation when they committed a crime.
Of course, Cooke's case lies on the extreme side of the simulation theory world, and there's nothing inherently nihilistic about simulation theory or people who believe in it. After all, there are many ways to think about simulation theory and its implications, just as there are many different ways to think about religion.
And as with religion, a key question in simulation theory is: Who created the simulation and why?
In his 2003 paper, Bostrom argued that future human civilizations might be interested in creating "ancestor simulations," meaning that our world might be a simulation of a human civilization that once existed in base reality; it'd be a way for future humans to study their past. Other explanations range from the simulation being some form of entertainment for future humans, to the simulation being the creation of aliens.
"If this is a simulation, there's sort of a half dozen different explanations for what this is for," Ascher told Big Think. "And some of them are completely opposite from one another."
To learn more about simulation theory and those who believe in it, we spoke to Ascher about "A Glitch in the Matrix", which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is now available to stream online. (This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.)
Rodney Ascher / "A Glitch in the Matrix"
Throughout 2020, many people seemed to talk about the world being a simulation, especially on Twitter. What do you make of that?
I see that just as sort of evidence of how deep the idea [of simulation theory] is penetrating our culture. You know, I'm addicted to Twitter, and everyday something strange happens in the news, and people make some jokes about, "This simulation is misfiring," or, "What am I doing in the dumbest possible timeline?"
I enjoy those conversations. But two things about them: On the one hand, they're using simulation theory as a way to let off steam, right? "Well, this world is so absurd, perhaps that's an explanation for it," or, "Maybe at the end of the day it doesn't matter that much because this isn't the real world."
But also, when you talk about the strange or horrifying, or bizarre unlikely things that happen as evidence [for the simulation], then that begs the question, well what is the simulation for, and why would these things happen? They could be an error or glitch in the matrix. [...] Or those strange things that happen might be the whole point [of the simulation].
How do you view the connections between religious ideas and simulation theory?
I kind of went in [to making the film] thinking that this was, in large part, going to be a discussion of the science. And people very quickly went to, you know, religious and sort of ethical places.
I think that connection made itself clearest when I talked to Erik Davis, who wrote a book called "Techgnosis", which is specifically about the convergence of religion and technology. He wanted to make it clear that, from his point of view, simulation theory was sort of a 21st-century spin on earlier ideas, some of them quite ancient.
To say that [religion and simulation theory] are exactly the same thing is sort of pushing it. [...] You could say that if simulation theory is correct, and that we are genuinely in some sort of digitally created world, that earlier traditions wouldn't have had the vocabulary for that.
So, they would have talked about it in terms of magic. But by the same token, if those are two alternative, if similar, explanations for how the world works, I think one of the interesting things that it does is that either one suggests something different about the creator itself.
In a religious tradition, the creator is this omnipotent, supernatural being. But in simulation theory, it could be a fifth-grader who just happens to have access to an incredibly powerful computer [laughs].
Rodney Ascher / "A Glitch in the Matrix"
How did your views on simulation theory change since you started working on this documentary?
I think what's changed my mind the most in the course of working on the film is how powerful it is as a metaphor for understanding the here-and-now world, without necessarily having to believe in [simulation theory] literally.
Emily Pothast brought up the idea of Plato's cave as sort of an early thought experiment that is kind of resonant of simulation theory. And she expands upon it, talking about how, in 21st-century America, the shadows that we're seeing of the real world are much more vivid. You know, the media diets that we all absorb, that are all reflections of the real world.
But the danger that the ones you're seeing aren't accurate—whether that's just signal loss from mistakes made by journalists working in good faith, or whether it's intentional distortion by somebody with an agenda—that leads to a really provocative idea about the artificial world, the simulated world, that each of us create, and then live in, based on our upbringing, our biases, and our media diet. That makes me stop and pause from time to time.
Do you see any connections between mental illness, or an inability to empathize with others, and some peoples' obsession with simulation theory?
It can certainly lead to strange, obsessive thinking. [Laughs] For some reason, I feel like I have to defend [people who believe in simulation theory], or qualify it. But you can get into the same sort of non-adaptive behavior obsessing on, you know, the Beatles or the Bible, or anything. [Charles] Manson was all obsessed on "The White Album." He didn't need simulation theory to send him down some very dark paths.
Credit: K_e_n via AdobeStock
Why do you think people are attracted to simulation theory?
You might be attracted to it because your peer group is attracted to it, or people that you admire are attracted to it, which lends it credibility. But also like, just the way you and I are talking about it now, it's a juicy topic that extends in a thousand different ways.
And despite the cautionary tales that come up in the film, I've had a huge amount of fascinating social conversations with people because of my interest in simulation theory, and I imagine it's true about a lot of people who spend a lot of time thinking about it. I don't know if they all think about it alone, right? Or if it's something that they enjoy talking about with other people.
If technology became sufficiently advanced, would you create a simulated world?
It'd be very tempting, especially if I could add the power of flight or something like that [laughs]. I think the biggest reason not to, and I just saw this on a comment on Twitter yesterday, and I don't know if it had occurred to me, but what might stop me is all the responsibility I'd feel to all the people within it, right? If this were an accurate simulation of planet Earth, the amounts of suffering that occurs there for all the creatures and what they went through, that might be what stops me from doing it.
If you discovered you were living in a simulation, would it change the way you behave in the world?
I think I would need more information about what the nature of the purpose of the simulation is. If I found out that I was the only person in a very elaborate virtual-reality game, and I had forgotten who I really was, well then I would act very differently then I would if I learned this is an accurate simulation of 21st-century America as conceived by aliens or people in the far future, in which case I think things would stay more or less the same — you know, my closest personal relationships, and my responsibility to my family and friends.
Just that we're in a simulation isn't enough. If all we know is that it's a simulation, kind of the weirdness is that that word "simulation" starts to mean less. Because whatever qualities the real world has and ours doesn't is inconceivable to us. This is still as real as real gets.
New research shows that experiencing an opposite-sex body in virtual reality impacted the subject's gender identity.
- Scientists find that experiencing an opposite-sex body can affect a person's gender identity.
- A new study utilized virtual reality to get subjects to feel like they had a stranger's body.
- The researchers found that people's sense of their own gender became more balanced after the experiments.
Is associating with a certain gender more of a flexible sense than hardwired biological fact? A new study shows that people who were put under the illusion of having an opposite-sex body developed a more equal understanding, with fewer stereotypes, of both male and female aspects.
In their paper, the scientists defined gender identity as "a collection of thoughts and feelings about one's own gender, which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth." To probe this, they designed three experiments using virtual reality that allowed people to experience what it's like to have a body they weren't born with.
The experiments, led by Pawel Tacikowski of Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, involved a relatively large sample of 140 people. One of the experiments had participants wearing a head-mounted display that was playing a first-person POV video of either a male or female body. The participants had to watch the stranger's body being touched while the same kind of action, on the same part, was being performed to their body. The synchronized nature of the touching created the illusion of another person's body being their own.
One of the changed conditions had the stranger's body appear to be threatened with a knife. Other control conditions had the touches being asynchronous, disrupting the illusion. In all the cases, the subjects had to tell the scientists how masculine or feminine they perceived themselves. The experiments showed that the participants felt more connected to another person's body when the conditions were synchronized. Both females and males reported feeling less identification with their own gender during such experiences.
Credit: Tacikowski / Fust/ Ehrsson / Scientific Reports.
In experiment (a), subjects wore a head-mounted display in which a body of an unknown male or female was shown from a first-person perspective (with the participant's actual body out of view). In part (b), participants had to rate the illusion after every interaction to assess the degree of feeling that the stranger's body was their own.
"We found that even a brief transformation of one's own perceived bodily sex dynamically updated the subjective, implicit, and personality-related aspects of the sense of own gender and made these aspects more balanced across male and female categories," write the scientists, adding "The fluidity of gender identity that we report here extends previous knowledge by demonstrating that the link between own body perception and the sense of own gender is dynamic, robust, and direct."
Another experiment utilized the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to find that the implicit gender biases of the subjects became more balanced during the illusion of having the body of the opposite sex. The third test demonstrated that the illusion also affected explicit gender beliefs, with the participants more equally ranking both masculine and feminine traits.
Current gender theories, as outlined in the study, have moved away from positioning gender identity as a strict "male-female dichotomy." Instead, the scientists say, the prevailing view is that gender is derived individually from a variety of associations with both genders, as well as from personal genetics, hormones, patterns of behavior and social life. There is also the understanding that the sense of your own gender is determined by your beliefs about males and females overall.
Check out the study "Fluidity of gender identity induced by illusory body-sex change" in the journal Scientific Reports.
"Interacting" with nature through virtual reality applications had especially strong benefits, according to the study.
- Previous studies have shown that spending time in nature can lead to a variety of mental and physical health benefits.
- The new study involved exposing people to a high-definition nature program through one of three mediums: TV, VR and interactive VR.
- The results suggest that nature programs may be an easy and effective way to give people a "dose" of nature, which may be especially helpful during pandemic lockdowns.
Spending time in nature can bring you well-established health benefits, from lowered anxiety and depression, to reduced blood pressure and a stronger immune system. But how nature produces these effects remains unclear. Is it the awe you feel hiking through a centuries-old forest? Time spent away from screens? The physical exercise?
Recent research adds a new dimension to scientists' understanding of how nature impacts wellbeing. The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that people who watched high-definition nature programs on TV or in virtual reality reported lower levels of boredom and other negative emotions.
For the study, researchers at the University of Exeter asked 96 participants to watch a video of a person describing their job at an office supply company. This was done to induce boredom.
The participants then watched or interacted with a nature program about a coral reef (which includes several scenes from the BBC's "Blue Planet II" series) under one of three randomly assigned conditions:
- 2D video viewed on a high-definition TV screen
- 360-degree VR, viewed via a head mounted display (HMD)
- Interactive computer-generated VR (CG-VR), also viewed via a HMD and interacted with using a hand-held controller
Example stills from the TV (top left), 360-VR (top right) and CG-VR (bottom right) exposure conditions.
Credit: Yeo et al.
The results showed that watching the nature program under all three conditions lowered negative affect, including emotions like boredom and sadness. But only the group who experienced the program in interactive VR reported a boost in mood, and feelings of being more connected to nature.
"Our results show that simply watching nature on TV can help to lift people's mood and combat boredom," lead researcher Nicky Yeo told University of Exeter News. "With people around the world facing limited access to outdoor environments because of COVID-19 quarantines, this study suggests that nature programmes might offer an accessible way for populations to benefit from a 'dose' of digital nature."
Helping those without access to nature
"Dose" is probably a keyword: The researchers didn't compare the benefits of experiencing nature via TV or VR to experiencing it in person. But even beyond the pandemic, the findings suggest that experiencing nature via virtual reality could help people improve their mental wellbeing — a tool that could prove especially useful for people who don't live near natural environments.
"Virtual reality could help us to boost the wellbeing of people who can't readily access the natural world, such as those in hospital or in long term care," co-author Mathew White told University of Exeter News. "But it might also help to encourage a deeper connection to nature in healthy populations, a mechanism which can foster more pro-environmental behaviours and prompt people to protect and preserve nature in the real world."
High-end VR headsets remain prohibitively costly for many consumers. One of the cheapest models, the Oculus Quest 2, costs $300, while more advanced headsets can run upward of $1,000. Still, you can buy barebones devices, like Google Cardboard, for about $10. These don't enable you to engage in fully interactive VR applications, but you could use them to view 360-degree virtual reality nature videos on YouTube.
Virtual reality is more than a trick. It's a solution to big problems.
- According to projections shared by the UN, Earth's population is expected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050. By the year 2100, that number could increase to 11 billion. Virtual reality will be necessary to reduce the waste of such a large population in industries like transport, retail, and manufacturing.
- As an existing technology, there is a lot that virtual reality can do: rich and immersive environments, heightened storytelling, emotionally resonant experiences, and increased productivity in retail. But it's only in its infancy.
- As the world's population continues to grow, the technology will need to evolve to facilitate a larger network of users, and developers will have to think harder about the technological potential and the ethical, neurological, and emotional side effects.