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Would Experiencing Life As A Factory Farm Cow Stop You From Eating So Much Meat?

A new virtual reality experience puts people in cows’ hooves to see if it changes how they feel about steak.

Would Experiencing Life As A Factory Farm Cow Stop You From Eating So Much Meat?
ChameleonsEye via Shutterstock

Factory farm cows have horrific lives before they are turned into burgers. They’re confined to tiny spaces, poked with electrical prods, and stuffed full of antibiotics and corn (and in some strange cases, ice cream sprinkles and gummy worms) before being led to slaughter. There has always been a contingent of people who feel so much empathy for these animals that they stop eating meat altogether. But what if humans could actually experience what factory farm cows deal with? Would everyone eat less meat, or at least advocate for better conditions?

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Researchers at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) are working on a number of experiments that use virtual reality to change the way people think about environmental conservation. One of the most intriguing projects lets participants experience a simulation of life as a cow. E&E News describes the participants’ experience:

They donned a virtual reality helmet and walked on hands and feet while in a virtual mirror they saw themselves as bovine. As the animal was jabbed with an electrical prod, a lab worker poked a volunteer’s side with a sticklike device. The ground shook to simulate the prod’s vibrations. The cow at the end was led toward a slaughterhouse.

Participants then recorded what they ate for the next week. The study sought to uncover whether temporarily “becoming” a cow prompted reduced meat consumption.

The lab hasn’t yet analyzed the experiment’s results, but one participant’s reaction indicates that it may have made at least a small difference:

“Once I got used to it I began to feel like I was the cow,” one person wrote. “I truly felt like I was going to the slaughter house towards the end and I felt sad that I (as a cow) was going to die. That last prod felt really sad.”

The VHIL lab’s other studies also suggest that experiencing life as a cow could have real world impacts. In one study from 2011, the lab found that forcing participants to cut down virtual trees caused them to use 20% less paper in real life while cleaning up a water spill (see video below).

These days, lab director Jeremy Bailinson is working on ways to address climate change through virtual reality.

From E&E News:

He envisions developing a virtual reality experience in which a person would perform common activities in his or her home, all the while generating black balloons that represent carbon dioxide emissions. Those balloons would then ride up into the atmosphere and subsequently fall to the ocean. Once in the water, the molecules would prompt a change in the waters’ pH.

He said he could potentially have the person become a fish trying to find food that’s vanished, or an organism on a reef struggling to finding calcium for shell. The initial results of the cow study, showing that people do empathize with the animal, indicate that the same model could be useful in other experiments, he said.

If these projects are all successful, what comes next? We can imagine that up-and-coming virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift could be used for in-home ethics-changing experiences, but these headsets are geared only towards gamers–and are still very pricey. Until there’s a virtual reality headset in every home, it’s difficult to imagine these experiments making a big difference.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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