Virtual Reality May Encourage Empathetic Behavior

Summary: According to a new study, virtual reality may be a useful tool for encouraging empathy and positive attitudes towards marginalized groups.

Source: PLOS.

Virtual Reality could be a useful tool to encourage empathy, helpful behavior, and positive attitudes towards marginalized groups, according to a study published October 17, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Fernanda Herrera from Stanford University, USA, and colleagues.

Empathy–the ability to share and understand others’ emotions–has been shown to foster altruistic or helpful behavior. Traditionally, researchers have induced empathy with perspective-taking tasks: asking study participants to imagine what it would be like to be someone else under specific circumstances. The authors of this study investigated whether Virtual Reality systems (VR) could aid such perspective-taking. In their experiments, involving over 500 participants, a control group of participants only read information about homelessness, while other groups completed a perspective-taking task by reading a narrative about homelessness, by experiencing the narrative interactively in 2D on a computer, or by experiencing the narrative using VR.

The authors found that participants in any perspective-taking task self-reported as feeling more empathetic than those who just read information. When asked to sign a petition to support homeless populations, VR participants were also more likely to sign than narrative-reading or computer-based task participants. Participants in the information-reading task also signed the petition as frequently as the VR participants indicating that fact driven interventions can also be successful in promotion of prosocial behaviors. Follow-up surveys also indicated longer-lasting positive effects on empathy, of up to eight weeks, for participants in the VR task than for those in the narrative-reading task.

a woman in a vr set
The authors note that participants who had never used VR before may have been confused or distracted by novelty, affecting results. image is in the public domain.

The authors note that participants who had never used VR before may have been confused or distracted by novelty, affecting results. Also, participant attitudes towards the homeless were not measures prior to the study, and participants may have already had set views on homelessness. Nonetheless, this research suggests that VR could be a useful tool to promote empathy and helpful behaviors.

Herrera adds: “The main takeaway from this research is that taking the perspective of others in virtual reality (VR), in this case the perspective of a homeless person, produces more empathy and prosocial behaviors immediately after the VR experience and better attitudes toward the homeless over the course of two months when compared to a traditional perspective-taking task.”

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: This research was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Grant ID# 72394. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Source: Fernanda Herrera – PLOS
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Open access research for “Building long-term empathy: A large-scale comparison of traditional and virtual reality perspective-taking” by Fernanda Herrera , Jeremy Bailenson, Erika Weisz, Elise Ogle, and Jamil Zaki in PLOS ONE. Published October 17 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]PLOS”Virtual Reality May Encourage Empathetic Behavior.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 17 October 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]PLOS(2018, October 17). Virtual Reality May Encourage Empathetic Behavior. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved October 17, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]PLOS”Virtual Reality May Encourage Empathetic Behavior.” (accessed October 17, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Building long-term empathy: A large-scale comparison of traditional and virtual reality perspective-taking

Virtual Reality (VR) has been increasingly referred to as the “ultimate empathy machine” since it allows users to experience any situation from any point of view. However, empirical evidence supporting the claim that VR is a more effective method of eliciting empathy than traditional perspective-taking is limited. Two experiments were conducted in order to compare the short and long-term effects of a traditional perspective-taking task and a VR perspective-taking task (Study 1), and to explore the role of technological immersion when it comes to different types of mediated perspective-taking tasks (Study 2). Results of Study 1 show that over the course of eight weeks participants in both conditions reported feeling empathetic and connected to the homeless at similar rates, however, participants who became homeless in VR had more positive, longer-lasting attitudes toward the homeless and signed a petition supporting the homeless at a significantly higher rate than participants who performed a traditional perspective-taking task. Study 2 compared three different types of perspective-taking tasks with different levels of immersion (traditional vs. desktop computer vs. VR) and a control condition (where participants received fact-driven information about the homeless). Results show that participants who performed any type of perspective-taking task reported feeling more empathetic and connected to the homeless than the participants who only received information. Replicating the results from Study 1, there was no difference in self-report measures for any of the perspective-taking conditions, however, a significantly higher number of participants in the VR condition signed a petition supporting affordable housing for the homeless compared to the traditional and less immersive conditions. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of these findings.

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