New Study Shows That Virtual Reality Creates More Empathy Than News Reports

Scientists wonder how the power of virtual reality might be used to sway opinion.


Two new studies using virtual reality suggests that digitally stepping into another person’s shoes can significantly increase empathy for another person’s situation, when compared to watching a news broadcast or reading a news report.

In an effort to better understand the psychological impact of VR on those using it, Stanford University researchers conducted two separate studies where subjects were shown the VR experience “Becoming Homeless” (see the video below). The seven-minute interactive film made some of the 560 participants sell furniture in their virtual apartment as they struggle to pay rent and find shelter on public transit.

The pair of two-month experiments (one was used to measure short-term effects and the other long-term effects) found that subjects who underwent the experience were more likely to develop “enduring positive attitudes” toward people who are homeless.

  • In the first study, 82 percent of the VR users signed a petition in support of affordable housing, versus 67 percent of people who read a story.
  • The second study found 85 percent of the VR subjects signing the petition compared to 66 percent of people who participated in a two-dimensional experience.

Fernanda Herrera, left, watches as fellow student Hannah Mieczkowski navigates through the VR experience that begins with an eviction notice.

L.A. Cicero

The studies was published in the journal PLOS ONE Thursday and were led by Stanford graduate student Fernanda Herrera. She believes this is an important first step in understanding how VR affects people in the short and long term.

“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,” Herrera said in a statement released with the research. “And that is an exciting finding.”

Virtual Reality: But There Could Be Health Risks

VR has been touted as an “empathy machine” for few years. Tech entrepreneur Chris Milk first coined the term in a 2015 TED talk but studies of its psychological effects have only recently been conducted.

A paper published in June by University of the Highlands and Islands researchers found that when coupled with psychological intervention, VR has the “potential for a real positive behavior change for a range of mental health conditions.” And separate Stanford study suggests the technology can serve as a powerful educational tool for children.

Virtual reality could be a powerful learning too for children. But there are many questions left unanswered about potential health risks and nefarious use cases.

Unsplash / Giu Vicente

These benefits are all bogged down by the unknown health risks that extended use of VR could cause. Even the aforementioned Stanford study admits, “the long-term effects of VR on children’s health and brain development are unclear.” Commercially available VR headsets, like the HTC Vive, warn the technology could trigger “increased heart rate, spikes in blood pressure, panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD, fainting, and other adverse effects.”

Virtual Reality: Could It Be Used for Misinformation?

Early studies have shown the potential for VR to be used for good. But the fact that it can have such lasting emotional impact makes it ripe for nefarious uses as well.

Herrera’s study provides evidence that people are more prone to act on VR storytelling than reading an article or watching something on a screen. This could potentially be used to misinform the masses with fake reports of attacks or protests, which could result in havoc.

All-in-one VR systems like the Oculus Go and Google Daydream are making the technology more accessible. Users no longer need to buy a $1,000 PC to compliment their $500 headset.

As this tech becomes more ubiquitous, administrators and government officials will need to answer tussle with questions of fake news and health risks. Especially if we’re going to make VR from a gimmicky arcade system to something akin to a blackboard in classrooms.

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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