Heterosexual individuals tend to find intimate touch from a same-sex virtual avatar to be more pleasant when they are “wearing” a virtual body of the opposite sex, according to new research that used immersive VR technology to induce a body swap illusion among participants.
Research has demonstrated that virtual reality environments can induce a body swap illusion, in which a person perceives their virtual avatar as their own body. The new findings, which have been published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, provide additional details on how perceptions of touch are impacted when a person’s real body is replaced with a virtual one.
“My research focuses on the embodied nature of social touch. The embodied cognition account postulates that cognition and emotion are shaped by the many kinds of experiences that come from having a body,” said study author Manuel Mello (@manuel__mello), a PhD student at Sapienza University of Rome.
“That touch experiences depend upon our sex (and gender) is a well-known fact. But how about the link between sex, the body, and social touch preferences? No study had yet investigated how social touch is affected by perceiving our body as completely different from what we usually experience in terms of sexual characteristics. Virtual reality and the full-body illusion enabled us to test exactly this, and the result is what you see in the published article.”
The study, which included 21 healthy heterosexual women and 21 healthy heterosexual men, examined the behavioral and physiological consequences of embodying a same-sex or an opposite-sex virtual body.
In the study, participants reclined in a chair as they wore an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. They passively observed from a first person perspective as a male or female virtual avatar delivered caresses to their foot, knee, pelvis, chest, head, and hand. The participants were not physically touched. Instead, the caresses were only delivered to the participants’ virtual body.
We implemented immersive virtual reality to elicit a full-body ownership illusion over same- and opposite-sex virtual bodies and examined the effect this had on interpersonal touch preferences.
— Manuel Mello (@manuel__mello) June 29, 2021
“In our work, the touches were virtual,” Mello explained. “We wanted to investigate the power of virtual reality in eliciting coherent behavioral and physiological reactions to interpersonal touch ‘as if’ the touch were delivered on our own body. This opens several paths to explore the interplay between body ownership and social touch in virtual reality. Moreover, we also focused on intimate touch, which would be unethical in normal circumstances.”
Both women and men preferred touch from opposite-sex avatars. But Mello and his colleagues found that embodying an opposite-sex virtual body shifted the participants’ perceptions of virtual touches. Women rated caresses on intimate body areas from a female avatar as more pleasant and more erogenous when they embodied a male (compared to when they embodied a female), while men rated caresses on intimate body areas from a male avatar as more pleasant and more erogenous when they embodied a female (compared to when they embodied a male).
Importantly, these shifts in preferences were associated with feelings of body ownership, particularly among men. They were also associated with changes in skin conductance response and heart rate.
“I think there is one main take-home message in our work,” Mello told PsyPost. “Unlike Descartes used to claim, res cogitans (the mind) and res extensa (the brain, the body) are two sides of the same coin. Mind, brain, and body constantly interact in our perception and understanding of the outer and inner worlds.”
“We demonstrated that this is also true for social touch perception, as changing the body changed social touch preferences – and these changes were further predicted by specific physiological activity.”
The researchers also found evidence that men were more susceptible to sex-related body swap illusions. Male participants tended to report greater feelings of body ownership, comfortableness, and identification when embodying a opposite-sex virtual body compared to their female counterparts.
Among women, embodying a male virtual body tended to decrease the illusion of being touched for caresses delivered by both male and female avatars. Among men, on the other hand, embodying a female virtual body tended to increase the illusion of being touched for caresses delivered by a male avatar.
But Mello noted that the current study only examined heterosexual people. “Future studies may want to examine the same link between sex, body and social touch preferences in other sexual orientations,” he said.
“I would also like to thank my colleagues and the people who supported me during the preparation of this work,” Mello added.
The study, “Wearing same- and opposite-sex virtual bodies and seeing them caressed in intimate areas“, was authored by Manuel Mello, Martina Fusaro, Gaetano Tieri, and Salvatore Maria Aglioti.