The results of the cow experiment aren't yet finalized, so Bailenson doesn't know whether people ate less meat in the days afterward. But the comments from the study participants show they did empathize with the cows, he said. Stanford does not release names of the volunteers but provided some of their answers to questions presented after the experiment.
"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."
Funding obstacles for climate research
Bailenson hopes to move more into the climate change arena, though so far he hasn't won funding for that effort. He's applied for grants with the National Science Foundation, but none has been successful.
In an interview, he answered cautiously when asked whether the subject is too politically dicey. He said that at NSF, "there's variance among reviewers as to the scientific details of global warming."
"Even among scientists who are fairly certain that global warming is real, which is most scientists, what the exact effects are going to be depend on the model of what's going on with warming," he added. "There's a lot more variance in what people think the outcome to warming is going to be."
Debbie Wing, a spokeswoman at NSF, said she could not comment on research proposals that hadn't been funded. But she said all requests "go through a gold standard, merit-based, peer-reviewed evaluation for selection."
Bailenson has secured some money to teach about ocean acidification. The cause of that -- the seas absorbing excess carbon dioxide -- essentially has the same culprit as climate change, he said.
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.
Playing video games to visualize climate change
In Vancouver, computer games are being used to illustrate the effects of global warming.
High school students from the suburb of Delta go to the Decision Theatre to play a game where they make decisions about land development and power use. "It's like 'SimCity' with climate change overtones," the Decision Theatre's Herron said, referring to the series of city-building computer games.
Students can opt for choices that mitigate the effects of climate change, like putting housing next to transit, while "if you make other choices, you end up with waterfront property" because of flooding, he said.
Delta is funding the experiment as it faces major choices about adaptation. Sea-level rise likely will override existing dikes in the region, Herron said.
The idea is to talk to students and their families about picking options that can benefit people and "not try to sell it as we have to give up" everything, Herron said. If it's presented as all sacrifice, he said, people won't buy into it until forced to and it's too late to limit warming.
At Harvard, the effort focuses on negotiation.
Participants sit in front of a computer screen and take on the role of a park ranger or a golf course owner while discussing uses for a pond and surrounding land. In one version, they then swap roles and debate from the other side.