Neighborhoods and health: Development and validation of an experimental manipulation of neighborhood characteristics in a virtual reality environment

Daniel A Hackman, Suzanne Dworak-Peck, Stephanie A Robert, Jascha Grübel, Raphael Weibel, Christoph Hölscher, Victor Schinazi

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Background: Neighborhood disadvantage is an independent predictor of health that is thought to operate, in part, through acute impacts on emotion and stress reactivity. Nevertheless, no studies have measured the acute effect of  neighborhood contexts on emotion and stress reactivity. To address these issues, we used virtual reality (VR) to develop an experimental model of neighborhood disadvantage and affluence. This study (1) assesses the validity of
the VR neighborhoods by examining participant observations and (2)
tests the hypothesis that neighborhood disadvantage elicits greater
stress reactivity and emotion.

Methods: In a preliminary analysis of an ongoing study, 26 participants were randomly assigned to complete a simple navigation task in the virtual affluent (VR-​A) (n = 11) or disadvantaged (VR-​D) (n = 15) neighborhood. Participants were young adults (M = 22.8 years, SD = 3.1), 53.8% female, and undergraduate or graduate (88.5%) students. Participants completed a systematic social
observation of the virtual neighborhood, and ratings of emotion and arousal, after the task. Blood pressure (BP) was measured three times during a baseline condition and at 3-​minute intervals during the task.

Results: The VR-​D condition was rated as lower in a measure of overall socioeconomic position (t = 10.2, p < .001). It was also rated as less safe to live in, less desirable, in worse condition, and having more garbage and fewer trees (all p < .001). The VR-​D condition also elicited more negative affect (t = 2.5, p = .02) but not arousal (t = -.48, p = .64), and higher ratings of anger, disgust, and sadness (all p ≤ .02). Systolic and diastolic BP were significantly higher than
baseline across both VR conditions (all p < .001). No significant differences in BP were found in preliminary analyses between VR-​D and VR-​A (all p > .55).

Conclusions: The validity of the VR-​based models was supported by participants’ differentiated perception of the neighborhood environments. In addition, the disadvantaged condition elicited more negative affect, consistent with hypotheses. Physiological and psychological responses to the virtual environments indicate the feasibility and utility of this approach for studying acute effects of neighborhood conditions on stress reactivity and other pathways to health. The final presentation will include complete data from this
ongoing study.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1534
Pages (from-to)A-8
Number of pages1
JournalPsychosomatic Medicine
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes
Event75th American Psychosomatic Society (APS) Annual Scientific Meeting: Mobilizing Technology to Advance Biobehavioral Science and Health - Sevilla, Spain
Duration: 15 Mar 201718 Mar 2017
Conference number: 75th


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