Can Virtual Reality Make Us Show More Empathy?

Can Virtual Reality Make Us Show More Empathy?
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Scientists from Stanford University created a virtual reality experience called Becoming Homeless to enhance our empathy. It’s designed to show how new tech affects us in compassionate ways and increase “people’s level of empathy.”

The new Stanford study on virtual reality and empathy was published in the journal PLOS ONE on Oct. 17. The study and VR look at some heart-wrenching experiences and ask upsetting questions. What would it feel like for people to lose their jobs and homes, and what would cause them to grow compassionate and empathetic toward homeless people?

“Experiences are what define us as humans, so it’s not surprising that an intense experience in VR is more impactful than imagining something,” communications professor and study co-author Jeremy Bailenson said in a statement.

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Many people who are fond of virtual reality experiences viewed the innovative technology as “the ultimate empathy machine” which is supposed to help people relate to each other better than novels, TV shows or film can do.

“About 10 million headsets have been sold in the U.S. over the past two years. So, many people now have access to VR experiences. But we still don’t know much about how VR affects people,” graduate student and lead author Fernanda Herrera said. “This research is an important step in figuring out how much of an effect this technology can have on people’s level of empathy in the long term.”

Previous research studies on virtual reality and empathy have shown mixed results using small sample sizes mostly made up of college students, according to Herrera. Other studies haven’t studied the long-term affection or empathy participants felt after VR experiences.

Herrera and Bailenson, along with Stanford psychology scholar Jamil Zaki and psychology graduate student Erika Weisz, worked on a pair of two-month-long studies which included 560 participants between the ages of 15 and 88 from at least eight ethnic backgrounds. Elise Ogle was also a co-author of the paper. Participants in the studies were shown Becoming Homeless, the seven-minute VR experience made by Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

In the experience, a narrator guides participants through some interactive VR scenarios that they would go through if they lost their job. There is a scene in which the participant has to look at an apartment and select items to sell to pay their rent. In another scene, the participant seeks shelter in public public and must protect their belongings from being stolen by passing strangers.

The team found that people who underwent the virtual reality experience tended to have an enduring positive attitude toward homeless people, as opposed to people who were doing other tasks, such as reading a narrative or using a 2D version of the scenarios on a computer.

“Taking the perspective of others in VR produces more empathy and prosocial behaviors in people immediately after going through the experience and over time in comparison to just imagining what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes,” Herrera said. “And that is an exciting finding.”

“We tend to think of empathy as something you either have or don’t have,” said Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology. “But lots of studies have demonstrated that empathy isn’t just a trait. It’s something you can work on and turn up or down in different situations.”

Herrera, Bailenson and the rest of the team are working on new studies that will show how VR affects us and our emotions. However, right now, Herrera is excited that their completed studies gave such positive and enduring results.

“Long after our studies were complete, some research participants emailed me to reflect on how they started becoming more involved in the issue afterward. One of them befriended a homeless person in their community and wrote me again once that person found a home,” Herrera said. “It was really inspiring to see that positive, lasting impact.”

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