Virtual Reality Has the Power to Create Long-Lasting Empathy, New Study Finds

Thursday, 18 October 2018 - 1:03PM
Technology
Virtual Reality
Thursday, 18 October 2018 - 1:03PM
Virtual Reality Has the Power to Create Long-Lasting Empathy, New Study Finds
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Composite from Pixabay
VR has been hailed as a lot of things: the next major video game platform, a new social networking platform, and even a rival to material reality, but researchers are still exploring its potential impact as an empathy device. Recently, a research team at Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that VR not only has the potential to provoke higher empathy levels than other media (like text or 2D representations), but also create longer-lasting empathy.

The research revolved around a 7-minute VR experience called "Becoming Homeless," which was meant to simulate what it's like to lose one's job, sell one's belongings to scrape together money, and end up on the street. Over the course of the experience, participants experience many of the day-to-day stresses of being homeless, such as attempting to use a public bus as a form of shelter and fending off people who try to steal their belongings. The research involved two separate studies, which involved over 560 participants between the ages of 15 and 88. Some participants were given the full VR experience, while others were asked to read a narrative about becoming homeless or play through a 2D version of the VR experience.



The results seem pretty clear-cut: at the end of the first study, 82% of participants who went through the VR experience voluntarily signed a petition to encourage affordable housing (a major political issue related to homelessness), compared to 67% of the participants who read the text narrative. In the second study, the numbers were 85% and 63%, respectively. 66% of those who went through the 2D version of the experience signed the petition.

According to Fernanda Herrera, the author of the study: "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. And that is an exciting finding."

The long-term effects of the experience were clear even after the study concluded. "Long after our studies were complete, some research participants emailed me to reflect on how they started becoming more involved in the issue afterward," said Herrera. "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."
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