Can Virtual Reality Make Us More Empathetic?

Written by on February 10, 2019 in Conscious Evolution, Sci-Tech, Technology with 2 Comments

By Teri-Louise Grassow

Technology is growing expediently, which can be daunting and bring apprehensions of a dystopian future — a world where technology over-rules and humanity falls. However, recent developments in technology have been proved to be beneficial.

In particular, virtual reality has come along way from being science fiction to be a working product, and research suggests that experiencing simulated environments could increase empathy. A recent study at Standford Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that participants who took part in the VR experience “becoming homeless” increased not only levels of empathy but also had long-lasting effects.

The experiment included a 7-minute simulation where participants lost their job, had to sell their belonging for money and ultimately ended up living on the streets. The VR experience covered many struggles of being homeless, such as finding shelter on public transport and keeping their belongings safe from thieves.

The research involved over 560 participants from ages 15-88. Participants were either given the full VR experience, a 2D version of the VR experience or asked to read a narrative about becoming homeless.

Image: Fernanda Herrera, left, with fellow student Hannah Mieczkowski participating in the VR experience ‘Becoming Homeless’. (image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The results from the study found that attitudes towards homelessness became more positive and supportive, agreeing with statements such as “Our society does not do enough to help homeless people” with those participants who had the full VR experience. The results also found that 82% of participants who experienced the full VR simulation voluntarily signed a petition which encourages affordable housing (one of the main factors related to homelessness). This number was a significant increase compared to 66% of those who experienced the 2D version of the VR simulation, and 63% of those who read the narrative.

Virtual reality has been named the ‘ultimate empathy machine’. It’s one thing to try to imagine yourself in other’s shoes, but VR can literally help you see the world through the eyes of another and experience a whole new perspective. Jeremy Bailenson, a profession of communication and co-author of the paper summed it up nicely when he said that  “Experiences are what us as humans, so it’s not surprising that an intense experience in VR is more impactful than imagining something”.

The results also showed the long-term effects of the experience. Four weeks after the study participants in the full VR experience condition continued to support initiatives that could benefit the homeless population, whereas the support for these kinds of efforts significantly decreased for participants in the other two conditions.

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

The growth in technological developments can seem frightening at first, yet if we choose to use technology to help us evolve and for the betterment of humankind, then the results could be great.

About the Author

Teri-Louise is a freelance writer who holds a Bachelor degree in Psychology and Counselling and is currently a Master scholar of Communication and Information Science. She specialises in the fields of psychology, science and relationships. Teri-Louise is particularly interested in topics regarding consciousness, perception, communication, and human behaviour, as well as the nature of reality. To see more of her work click here.

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  1.' clnews says:

    Wonderful article Teri-Louise! The world would benefit greatly by becoming more empathetic. Thanks!!! -Ross

  2.' Cherie Roe Dirksen says:

    Well this is very heartening news indeed. Thank you for sharing this info, Teri-Louise. I look forward to reading more from you xxx

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