The Virtual Reality Experiment on Empathy

This month we have been looking at new research and reporting examining the potential of virtual reality (VR) to foster empathy and create behavioral changes for its users. Currently there are several universities with digital labs working on this topic.  Some of most prominent research has been coming from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and MIT’s Open Documentary Lab.

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The research has found that Virtual Reality through the creation of immersive virtual environments (IVEs), has the ability to cultivate perspective where participants are able to imagine themselves in the shoes of another. These IVEs, rich with simulations of sensory experiences and feedback, create what is called ‘embodied cognition or the perception of being present in the virtual world. Research has shown that this experience can create empathy for subjects or experiences within a VR production.

In one study, lead by Dr. Beatrice Hasler, examined interactions between 60 Jewish Israeli participants and Jamil, a Palestinian who was a character in the VR simulation. Jamil has the ability to interact and speak with participants who were wearing VR technology about issues pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The program allows Jamil to mimic or mirror the body movements and language of the human participants. Hasler’s findings were astonishing. She found that empathy for Palestinians increased among those participants who had their body posture mimicked by Jamil, irrespective of their prior feelings towards Palestinians.


Image of virtual character Jamil mirroring participants body language. From Beatrice Hasler, Gilad Hirschberger, Gilad Hirschberger and Doron A. Friedman findings on their study Virtual Peacemakers: Mimicry Increases Empathy in Simulated Contact with Virtual Outgroup Members

In August, Stanford released findings on an experiment which measured empathy change for users exposed to a VR simulation where they followed carbon molecules from the tailpipes of cars to the sea where the pollution caused ocean acidification and damaged coral reefs. Instead of a VR simulation, the control group was shown only a video on ocean acidification. The results showed increased empathy among participants who experienced the VR simulation.

In another project out of MIT’s Open Doc Lab, award winning photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa is using VR to create an immersive experience, which allows users to literally walk between combatants of longstanding conflicts and have face to face interactions with each. As the website explains, “The Enemy breaks away from traditional media depictions of war. By allowing the ones who carry out the violence to explain who they are, their motives and their dreams, the project challenges views held by all sides, and ultimately humanizes the combatants.” The idea is to move participants beyond easy rhetoric and to examine their notions of “enemy” and “empathy”. Currently the project is looking for testers to beta test the experience.

These experiments are already having practical and commercial uses as well. A start-up in Chicago called Embodied Labs is currently implementing a VR empathy building program in the field of health education. Using an Oculus Rift headset and Leap sensory technology, Embodied Labs created an immersive experience, which lets first year med students become Alfred, a 74 year old man who is experiencing macular degeneration. The goal is to help foster a first-person patient experience so future doctors better understand the personal implications of the care they provide.


From protracted military conflicts, climate change and patient-doctor relationships, research suggests that advanced VR technology has the ability to build not only empathy but also in some cases change behavior.  


By Dave Thatcher

Dave is currently a student Metropolitan State University of Denver focusing on convergent journalism and multimedia advocacy studies. He has a strong interest in emerging digital storytelling techniques and new ways to achieve audience engagement and social impact through multimedia. Prior to his multimedia studies, Dave spent several years working in the field of refugee resettlement in the United States. Additionally he worked abroad in Sub-Saharan Africa as protections specialist for human rights defenders. In his spare time, Dave can be found wandering the winding streets of Istanbul in search of the perfect cup of coffee.

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