Can A Virtual Reality Stimulation With a Criminal’s Future Self Decrease Self-Destructive Behavior?

Joyce Chen ’23

Figure 1: The unique usage of virtual reality as a form of treatment for prisoners in Dr. Jean-Louis van Gelder’s study paves the way for possible new intervention methods in the future. 

Many of us have done things that we regret over the course of our lifetime. Some of us develop from our setbacks, while others are imprisoned and ostracized by society. These criminals’ actions were likely impulsive, completely disregarding the consequences that the future may bring. However, poor decisions can be resolved by introspection. Dr. Jean-Louis van Gelder of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law sought to understand how convicted offenders would react if they engaged with an older version of themselves through virtual reality (VR). He and his research team hypothesized that the offenders would reflect on their actions and grow from them instead of engaging in self-destructive behavior.  

The team studied 24 young male offenders over the course of three months. Prior to this experience, participants had pictures of their faces taken by the researchers. These images were processed to create aged 3D avatars. The participants were asked to answer several survey questions based on their ability to connect with and imagine their future selves, how much they engaged in self-destructive behavior and their expectations for their future lives. Afterward, they were immersed in the VR simulation, where they met their older selves in a futuristic environment. The participants reported their emotions and experiences during the simulation immediately after. The researchers noticed that the offenders reported decreased levels of self-defeating behavior after the VR simulation. Behaviors such as “spending more money on something than intended” had decreased from 71.4% to 52.4% and “drinking alcohol” decreased from 52.4% to 28.6%. Based on a linear regression analysis, a significant positive correlation between the offenders’ poor vision of their future and their self-defeating behavior was represented by p = 0.04 with an adjusted R2 of 0.03. Therefore, an increase in an offender’s vividness of the future is linked to a decrease in their self-destructive behavior. However, future studies with larger sample sizes would be necessary to draw more accurate conclusions.

Dr. Gelder and his colleagues’ study showed how art, specifically digital media and virtual reality, can be used for psychological research and possibly therapeutic interventions. Although additional research is needed, the researchers believe that this experiment highlights the potential of the arts and technology in decreasing crime rates by changing behaviors in offenders. 

Works Cited: 

[1] J. Van Gelder, et al., Interaction with the future self in virtual reality reduces self-defeating behavior in a sample of convicted offenders. Sci Rep 12, 2254 (2022). doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-06305-5.

[2] Image retrieved from:


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