June 25, 2018

Empathy for the Homeless

Let's continue with the work of Fernanda Herrera and her research in the arena of virtual reality. In the last two posts in this series, we laid some preliminary groundwork. Now, let’s fast forward to Herrera’s most recent scholarly work. Herrera’s current research, still in process, focuses on two central questions, instantiated in two separate studies:
Can VR interventions be used to teach empathy and prosocial behaviors toward the homeless?
How long do these effects last, given three follow-up assessments at 2, 4 and 8 weeks after the intervention?
Can VR interventions be used to teach empathy and prosocial behaviors toward the homeless? The scenario in this research study begins in the present: 
...our landlord knocks on the door. When you open it, he says you have until the end of the day to pay your past-due rent or you will lose your apartment. You owe $750. [The VR simulation then requires you to choose what objects in your apartment you will sell to stay. But the items you sell simply won’t add up to the necessary amount.] 
 Next, you receive an eviction notice, and soon you’ve run out of time. You get kicked out of your apartment and start living in your car. In your car, you struggle looking around for a misplaced toothbrush and discover, in general, how hard it is to do mundane things while living in a small vehicle. [Unfortunately, in San Francisco, there is a law if you get caught sleeping in your car three times, you get your car impounded.] 
One moment, while rustling through your belongings, trying to find your toothbrush, you get caught--and cited. Your car gets impounded. At this time you are now sleeping on a bus, experiencing the dangers of not having shelter, and not being able to get to a community shelter before they close the doors [Most shelters are full by 4:00 pm. Although many homeless do indeed have jobs, they cannot always get off work to make it to a shelter on time]. 
While on the bus, someone tries to get close to you Once, you have your belongings stolen. There is even an interactive scene where you talk to others on the bus, people who are also homeless, learning why they became that way [spousal abuse or loss of a job, as an example].
Herrera summarized the overall experience  when she stated that “VR is really a good perspective-producing machine.” Although the findings are preliminary (the study is still ongoing), she summarized the key points of her latest research project using virtual reality to impart empathy:
  • Just receiving information about the homeless problem doesn’t appear to lead to action in addressing those challenges
  • Simply ‘imagining’ the above presented scenario narrative also fails to lead toward active, prosocial behaviors
  • New and previously unknown information, however, can indeed promote more prosocial behaviors (Information such as the notion that many community shelters close by 4:00 pm, already filling to capacity by that time)
  • Immersive and experiential conditions (VR) enable study participants to feel closer to the homeless and their plight
  • Participants in the experiential VR condition evidence heightened movement toward becoming engaged and making a difference

Apparently, the narrative of virtual reality outperforms simple information-giving in the ecology of empathy.  How long this empathy, prosocial behavior, and inclination to act will linger, however, remains to be seen. Herrera has not yet completed the second study. But we may be well on the way to observing the demonstrable emergence of Milk’s “ultimate empathy machine”.

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