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Growing empathy through virtual reality

| September 8, 2020 1:00 AM

Virtual reality is a transformative technology. Practical applications have expanded capabilities in engineering and architecture, tourism and “virtual vacations,” distance work, health care and more.

VR games can make you feel like you actually are playing golf, flying a plane, vanquishing a troll or scaling Mordor's Mount Doom.

But VR has also raised concerns. Addiction is one. Violent games which stimulate feel-good dopamine releases — creating what some players describe as a “rush” — by immersive killing, maiming, and raping are another. Some say at least this kind of VR could desensitize and detach man from fellow man to mutual detriment.

And yet … It seems VR can also do the opposite. Two studies indicate this technology can be especially adept at making people more compassionate.

A Stanford University study reported in the Oct. 17, 2018, issue of the journal Plos One found that people who had a virtual reality experience called “Becoming Homeless” were more empathetic toward the homeless and more likely to sign an affordable housing petition than the non-VR participants. In the VR simulation, subjects “experienced” losing their jobs and homes and existing on the streets, beyond what’s possible by reading or watching a film.

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

Prior research on VR and empathy had mixed results and used small sample sizes of mostly college students. The two Stanford studies tracked 560 participants aged 15 to 88 (representing eight ethnic backgrounds) for two months. Researchers found the "Becoming Homeless" subjects were more likely to have enduring positive attitudes toward the homeless and were more likely to sign an affordable housing petition than were subjects who simply read about it or interacted with a computer program.

Even more powerful would be to wake up in someone else’s body.

A later study published Aug. 26, 2020, in iScience involved a “body swap” between two friends. Swedish researchers found that when each viewed the body of the other as their own with special goggles, the viewer’s beliefs about their own personality and beliefs became more aligned with their perceptions about the friend’s personality.

The findings suggest a strong connection between our physical and psychological sense of self.

The team from Henrik Ehrsson’s Brain, Body, and Self Laboratory in Stockholm outfitted pairs of friends with goggles showing live feeds of the other person's body, making it feel like it belonged to them. To further the illusion, they applied simultaneous touches to both participants so they could “feel” what they saw. After only a few minutes, when researchers threatened the friend's body with a fake knife, the viewing participant broke out into a sweat.

Their empathy extended beyond the physical. Before the swap, participants rated friends on traits such as talkativeness, cheerfulness, independence, and confidence as a baseline. During the swap, they tended to rate themselves similarly to the friend whose body they were in.

Some philosophies hold living things not as separate entities, but as moving parts of one whole — a universal VR experience of a sort.

“New technology is not good or evil in and of itself. It all depends on how people choose to use it.” — Author David Wong (a.k.a. Jason Pargin)


Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network and a neoluddite. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.