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21st October 2018

VR can enhance empathy

A study by Stanford University finds that the use of virtual reality can induce greater compassion in people than other forms of media.


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A new virtual reality (VR) game developed at Stanford University – called "Becoming Homeless" – is helping to expand research on how this immersive technology affects people's level of empathy.

People who experienced losing their jobs and homes in the VR simulation developed longer-lasting compassion toward the homeless compared to those who explored other media versions of the scenario, like text. The study results are published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

"Experiences are what define us as humans, so it's not surprising that an intense experience in virtual reality is more impactful than imagining something," explains Jeremy Bailenson, Professor of Communication and a co-author of the paper.

Many enthusiasts of virtual reality claim it can help people relate to each other better than novels, TV shows or films can. But little actual research has been done to examine how exactly this emerging technology can alter people's attitudes.

"About 10 million headsets have been sold in the U.S. over the past two years. So, many people now have access to VR experiences. But we still don't know much about how VR affects people," says Fernanda Herrera, a graduate student in the Department of Communication and the paper's lead author. "This research is an important step in figuring out how much of an effect this technology can have on people's level of empathy in the long term."

Previous studies on VR and empathy have shown mixed results and used only small sample sizes. In addition, they did not examine the long-term effect of VR on empathy beyond one week. As part of their new research, Herrera (pictured below, left) and her team conducted two studies, each two months in duration and with more than 560 participants, aged 15 to 88 and representing at least eight ethnic backgrounds. Some were shown the seven-minute "Becoming Homeless" VR experience developed by Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.


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Fernanda Herrera, left, watches as fellow student Hannah Mieczkowski navigates through the VR experience, which begins with an eviction notice. Credit: L.A. Cicero


In "Becoming Homeless", a narrator guides participants through interactive scenarios that may happen if they lost their jobs. In one scene, the participant has to look around an apartment to select items to sell in order to pay the rent. In another scene, the participant finds shelter on a public bus and has to protect belongings from being stolen by a stranger.

The researchers found that participants who underwent "Becoming Homeless" were more likely to have enduring positive attitudes toward the homeless than people who did other tasks, such as reading a narrative or using a two-dimensional version of the scenario on a desktop computer. The same people were also more likely to sign a petition in support of affordable housing, according to the study.

"Taking the perspective of others in VR produces more empathy and pro-social behaviours 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. "And that is an exciting finding."

The results showed that participants in the VR scenarios were significantly more likely to agree with statements like "Our society does not do enough to help homeless people." They were more likely to say that they personally cared "very much" about the plight of homeless people. The research also found that their empathetic attitudes toward the homeless endured. In addition, 82% of participants in the first study who experienced the virtual reality signed a petition supporting affordable housing, versus 67% who read a narrative that asked them to imagine becoming homeless. In the second study, 85% of the VR users signed the petition in comparison to 63% who read the narrative. Of participants who saw the two-dimensional version of the game (i.e. with a desktop monitor and no headset), 66% signed the petition.

"What's special about this research is that it gives us longitudinal evidence that VR changes attitudes and behaviours of people in a positive way," Bailenson said.



Not all empathy exercises that introduce perspectives of different groups produce positive effects. For example, previous research has shown that when people are asked to take the perspective of their competitors, they become less empathetic toward them. Similarly, the format of a VR experience also matters when considering how it might alter people's attitudes, Herrera said.

The Stanford researchers are now working on other studies to determine the nuances of VR's effects on people. But for now, Herrera and her team are excited about the evidence that they have gathered in their new study.

"Long after our studies were complete, some research participants emailed me to reflect on how they started becoming more involved in the issue afterward. One of them befriended a homeless person in their community and wrote me again once that person found a home," Herrera said. "It was really inspiring to see that positive, lasting impact."



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