June 11, 2018

VR and Empathy

“What if we could teach people about social issues so that they could not only learn facts, but they could also learn how to be more empathetic, to see things from another person’s point view?” asks Fernanda Herrera, a Stanford University PhD candidate. She wonders if it possible to employ virtual reality (crediting Chris Milk’s TED talk) as an “ultimate empathy machine”.

Citing some previous work at Stanford while presenting at an ed-tech conference, Herrera describes two interesting empathy-based studies:

Becoming the Superhero. In one virtual reality study, participants take on the role of a flying superhero who finds their city in a state of emergency. In the rush to evacuate the city, one child has inadvertently been left behind. Half of the study’s participants flew in to rescue the child in a helicopter, while half flew in as a full-fledged superhero. The research showed that participants who ‘became’ the superhero helped find the child faster and helped more thoroughly than those who flew in with a helicopter. Apparently, role models can be effectively ‘embodied’ in a VR experience.

An older version of me. In another study, the participants simply ‘inhabited’ an older avatar of themselves. Researchers were hoping to discover if the participants would become less prejudiced toward the elderly. One study was conducted using the medium of VR, while another experiment asked participants to simply ‘imagine’ themselves to be older. The results? Those participants who just imagined being elderly didn’t at all feel ‘connected’ to the elderly. But those who ‘embodied’ the age study group through VR felt more connected and also wanted to help. A follow-up study, with the same conditions, evidenced no difference if they felt their group was under threat. Evidently, the presence of competition may reduce the ability to empathize. 

Come back for more insight next week...

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