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Can Virtual Reality increase our capacity for Empathy?

We know the long-term benefits of mindfulness meditation. How fascinating it is for regular practitioners to feel more confident and, above all, surprisingly, more empathetic (under certain conditions validated by research), but can it help us to overcome prejudices of all kinds, on race, age, gender or disability and get as close as possible to what the other person feels?

In this field, the discussion continues between those who, like the artist Chris Milk , see in this new medium the ultimate machine of empathy and those on the other hand who hardly believe in it:

Milk’s first virtual reality production was a collaboration with musical artist Beck entitled “Sound and Vision”. The project was initially released online, giving viewers the choice to watch Beck perform from the vantage point of different 360 degree cameras, and further allowed viewers to use their computer’s mouse to change their viewing perspective. Milk invented a binaural audio recording instrument in order to capture sound in a 3D environment to mimic real life human experience. The result allows the audio to shift perspective in accordance with what the viewer is seeing, creating a natural virtual experience for the audience member. In the tradition of his work on “The Wilderness Downtown” and Rome, Milk utilized modern technologies to further expand the viewing experience: viewers could enable their computer’s webcam to shift the perspective of the 360 video up, down, left and right with the tilt of their head”.

But beyond a simple difference of opinion, what does the research say about it?

Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has been studying this issue since 2003, along with many other psychological aspects of virtual reality, at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHI) in Stanford.

These studies were reported in a book entitled “Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality is, How it works, and What it can do”.

The book deals with many subjects, but it is on empathy that our whole problem rests. When discussing the subject of empathy, we must answer two essential and different questions:

  • Does Virtual Reality increase empathy?
  • In what specific way does it do this and is Virtual Reality more effective than the processes used by other media?
  • Is it better to enter into a Virtual Reality than to see a movie or read a book for example?

First of all, let’s come back to the definition of empathy that I had extensively discussed in my previous article:

According to Bailenson, psychologists generally distinguish two possible aspects of this mental function:

  • The first is strictly emotional. This is how it feels when you see someone suffering in front of you.
  • The second is cognitive. It is the ability to put oneself in someone’s shoes, to understand how they feel. In other words, it is the famous “theory of the mind”.

For Bailenson, however, this double aspect of empathy is insufficient. He prefers to speak of “complete empathy”, which adds a “motivational” factor.

After experiencing emotional and cognitive empathy, will the person act to prevent the suffering of others?

In psychology, one way to increase and measure empathy is through a “change of perspective”. In other words, ask a subject to put himself in the place of the person concerned.

An example of experimentation in this field was done at Harvard University in the 2000s by Professor Adam Galinsky on the perception of the elderly.

Subjects were asked to describe the day of an elderly individual depicted in a photograph. A first group did not receive any more specific instructions. But a second group was asked to write the story of that day in the first person. Then, a questionnaire showed that the members of the second team tended to adopt a more positive attitude towards our elders.

In fact, this experiment, which required only paper and pencil, is the model for the work subsequently carried out in Virtual Reality.

If someone wants to change their tendencies towards racism, sexism or the elderly, it will clearly not be enough to put on a black, female or elderly avatar. He has to change his own body schema.

To do this, Bailenson and his team use a particular process, the virtual mirror “.

After entering the virtual world and putting on his avatar, the subject can observe his new body, and above all, he is invited to make various movements, touch his shoulders, etc. Naturally, the image in the mirror reflects his actions.

The operation lasts about 90 seconds, enough time according to the researchers, for us to adapt and really “embody” our new body.

Then, as part of the age experiment, the virtual traveller meets a partner who carries the avatar of a young man. Of course, this newcomer also sees the subject in the form of the elderly avatar. Subjects were tested for implicit word associations. The test person was asked to give the first words that come to mind in relation to a theme.

It turned out that about seniors, participants in the virtual simulation tended to use more positive words, such as “wise”, as opposed to words likewrinkled”, for example… So there is something interesting going on apparently…

But things are more complicated than they seem at first glance.

What works with age bias should work as well for racism, right?

This is what a Bailenson student naturally thought when she repeated the same type of experiments using a black avatar. She tested about a hundred people.

In this session, the “partner” asked the avatar’s carrier a series of questions about his professional skills. And then, astonishment!

Not only has the experience shown no positive improvement in the field of racial prejudice, but researchers have also noted an increase in these prejudices after going through virtual reality.

Another oddity was that this increase was not only seen in white subjects, but also in black participants!

What could be the cause of this phenomenon?

Bailenson wondered if it was not because the “body transfer” had failed. The technology used was quite primitive, the monitoring of arm movements was insufficient, for example…In the absence of “transfer”, the experimenters would have been content to bring back to the surface the stereotypes that they were trying to combat.

And indeed, subsequently, in Barcelona, Mel Slater, a Research Professor at the University of Barcelona, who has powerful RV equipment and would be the great body transfer specialist, obtained opposite results and more in line with what was expected: subjects saw their reduced stereotypes well.

The “Harvard Implicit Association Test” (IAT) was used to assess a person’s prejudices about a category of individuals:

Here is a tool that allows each of us to discover hidden cognitive biases. Most people are aware of their own overt biases, but it is very difficult for us to become aware of our covert biases. This is a test that can be taken by each individual for their own benefit. Implicit Association Test (IAT) is excellent for showing bias and how our unconscious drives our day to day decision making. It helps all of us, from all backgrounds, recognize unconscious/hidden biases which may unknowingly distort our objective evaluation and treatment of others based upon race, gender, religion, culture, etc. It also opens pathways for participants, once their unconscious bias awareness is raised (in spite of most people’s surprise that they still have room for growth), to take specific behavioral steps to help interrupt some of those biases in their professional and personal performance and interactions”.

Photo by Thomas Jörn on Unsplash

It would seem to work, but how far?

Bailenson tried to find the ceiling above which the RV no longer gave good results. To do this, he resumed his experiments on the elderly but added an additional factor: the threat!

Is the increase in the number of elderly people on the planet a problem for the younger generations? I will talk about a lack of value in terms of respect for elders and discrimination. But we all know that scientists sometimes go very far when it comes to ethics and that, to put it bluntly, it is none of their business.

So the experimenters tested this fear on a very intellectual, abstract level. Before the “body transfer”, the subjects were invited to read two texts:

  • The first group on the one testing a “high threat” was to read an article entitled “The elderly are an immediate threat to young Americans”,
  • The second group simply read a more neutral text: “America is preparing to change its demography”.

After this phase, some subjects had to write an essay on what they had read, while others went directly through the “body transfer”. In other words, there were four groups:

  • Two groups, one of which was aware of the strong threat,
  • Another one more neutral.

And in practice, each of these two teams was then divided in turn into two:

  • The ones that went through the “body transfer”,
  • Those who were content to write an essay.

This made it possible not only to measure the impact of RV in terms of empathy, but also to compare it with other methods and media.

Not only did the threatened VR group prove to be more positive than the corresponding non-VR group, but it was also more open-minded than the members of the “writer” group who had read the “neutral” text”.


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Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !

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