How Virtual Reality Is Helping Improve Users' Empathy

Can Virtual Reality Make People Kinder?

Imagine this scenario. You put on a virtual reality headset, the one that looks like ski goggles with an attached power cord. The first thing you see is an apartment with low quality furniture. A narrator talks to you over an earpiece, and the disembodied voice tells you that you’ve just been laid off from your job, that you can’t pay the rent, and that you need to sell whatever furniture you have to make ends meet. But there’s a shift, and suddenly, you’re in your car. You look around to find that all your possessions in the world are there with you, in a pile. It seems you now live in your car. A light shines into your car window. It’s a cop, and he tells you to get a move on as you can’t park in that spot. Suddenly, it all hits you: this is what it feels like to be homeless.

Virtual Reality as a Tool to Improve Empathy

This project was designed by the team of Elise Ogle from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Ms. Ogle, who serves as project manager, has said of the particular VR environment: “We want to see if having this intense emotionally arousing experience could change the way you think and the way you act toward the homeless.”

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It used to be that virtual reality was used mostly for entertainment or gaming purposes, but lately, the industry has seen more uses for it that goes beyond just video games or science fiction movies. One of its purposes has been to help increase levels of compassion in people and changing their attitudes when it comes to how they treat their fellow humans. And one of the best ways you can achieve that is to literally be in one’s shoes—to be in their own “skin” and to walk around in their own “body.” This concept of living another person’s life and understanding what it’s like to be like them is a concept that’s based on the philosophy of Atticus Finch, the fictional lawyer character in Harper Lee’s award-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Social Immersive Experiences

Jeremy Bailenson, VHIL’s director, has done his own research about these kinds of “social good” experiences. Virtual reality was chosen as a platform because of its capacity for total immersion. When you put on that headset, you can get lost in a VR experience in an immersive way that you never could when reading a book or watching a movie.

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Bailenson added, “The front of your brain tells you over and over again this is not real, it can’t be real. But the back of your brain, the one that’s charged with basic survival, it can’t differentiate. And if it looks real, it sounds real, it treats the experience as real.”

The biggest and most extensive “social good” VR experiment has been conducted by Bailenson’s lab, and it is titled the Empathy Scale. There are over a thousand participants in the experiment, and researchers collected data from them, monitoring their empathy reactions over a period of time.

Bailenson further said, “How long do these effects last? Are they robust? Do they continue to produce attitude and behavior change six months out, or a year out? The truth is, we don’t know, and we hope to find out.”

The project was partly funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an organization based in Princeton, New Jersey, with an investment of $300,000. It was its first foray into the virtual reality market, and it did so with the purpose of finding out how virtual reality may be used to improve personal well-being and public health.

Lori Melichar, a director at the said organization, has said of the project, “It’s undoubtedly going to lead to policies that can help support people who are in these situations, and just can also lead to all of us being kinder to our fellow man.”

Another who has seen the advantage of the project is Dr. “Skip” Rizzo, who is the head of the Medical Virtual Reality Research Group of the University of Southern California. He and his team had previously also designed a stimulation program that helped soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Rizzo said of his project, “It kind of opens their eyes to what it was like for their loved one to have to go through a wartime conflict. When they are riding in a Humvee and all of a sudden an IED goes off . . . they have a little bit of a deeper sense of what their loved one has gone through.”

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