New research finds that virtual reality increases emotional responses toward others, but doesn’t develop the understanding of their thoughts and feelings that is key to maintaining compassion
INDIANAPOLIS—At a time of general uneasiness about how new digital media might reduce empathy, many people are embracing virtual reality (VR) technology as an exception, some going so far as to hail it as an “empathy machine.”
However, new research finds that VR fails to improve a type of empathy essential for maintaining compassion when the VR goggles are taken off.
A new meta-analysis combining the results of more than 43 studies (122 effect sizes) finds that VR increases the emotional empathy of its users, but not their cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is having an emotional reaction to others’ experiences, whereas cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. Cognitive empathy is key for arousing compassion toward those we cannot see or with whom we cannot interact, such as people who live halfway around the world from us.
The meta-analysis was conducted and co-authored by Alison Jane Martingano, a Ph.D. student at the New School for Social Research, Fernanda Herrera, a Ph.D. student in Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, and Dr. Sara Konrath, associate professor of philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and visiting professor at the New School for Social Research. The results were presented at the Association for Psychological Science’s 31st Annual Convention, in Washington, DC, on Sat., May 25, 2019.
“Many people have access to VR experiences, with over 10 million headsets sold in the U.S. in the past two years,” says Herrera. “However, most past research on VR and empathy uses small sample sizes or finds mixed results. That is why we needed to combine all known studies in this meta-analysis to examine how VR affects empathy across different contexts.”
Previous research by Konrath found that empathy in young adults has declined by 40% since 1979. “Because many people believe that new digital media can impair empathy, we need to better understand both the promise and potential pitfalls of all kinds of digital technology, including social media, smartphones, and now, virtual reality technology,” Konrath explains.
“Our results have important, real-world implications because empathy is one of the key motivators of giving, volunteering and other helping behaviors,” lead author Martingano says.
“VR appears to skip a step in the normal compassionate process. Normally, cognitive empathy—the ability to imagine the suffering of others—leads to emotional empathy, which in turn leads to helping and other prosocial behaviors,” Martingano says. “VR’s graphic content arouses our emotional empathy immediately, without need for cognitive empathy. But without practicing our cognitive empathy skills we may find ourselves unable to empathize with anyone who is not presented in 4D high-definition with surround sound technology.
“Far from increasing our empathy to others around the globe, this would restrict our empathy to only those we can see, albeit virtually, taking us backwards rather than forwards in terms of increasing compassion,” Martingano says. “One of the great benefits of cognitive empathy is that it allows us to empathize with people who we cannot see, but who we can imagine based upon on shared humanity. Maintaining our ability to engage cognitive empathy should help to maintain a more compassionate society overall.”
VR technology includes everything from 360 degree videos to fully immersive headset experiences. The next frontier in entertainment, with an expected market value of nearly 45 billion USD by 2024, VR can offer people a vivid window into unfamiliar worlds. For example, the VR film Clouds over Sidra offers a glimpse into the life of a 12-year-old girl in a Syrian refugee camp. Another experience, 1000 Cut Journey, allows viewers to embody the avatar of a black man who encounters racism throughout his life. Becoming Homeless helps people experience the life of someone who can no longer afford a home.
Why do the authors think that VR only increased emotional empathy, but not cognitive empathy? Martingano says, “We can’t know for sure why only emotional empathy is improved by VR. Perhaps these dramatic experiences hand empathic feelings to viewers too easily, without them having to do the necessary work of imagining others’ worlds. Our future research will test the potential benefits and limits of virtual reality as an empathy machine.”
Overall, the researchers found that virtual reality’s effect on empathy was moderate. When comparing this result to previous research on other empathy building techniques it appears that VR has smaller effects than simply asking people to imagine other people’s perspectives. On the other hand, VR has larger effects on empathy than reading fiction.
These results suggest that although virtual reality has promise as an entertaining way of increasing empathy, there are less expensive and less technologically advanced methods that can also have the desired effect. In other words, when it comes to building empathy, it might be wise to consider VR as one method among many. However, VR does have a clear advantage – its usage is increasing over time, even as reading for fun has sharply declined among youth. The authors suggest that future studies should directly compare the best ways of increasing empathy, and examine whether VR has advantages over alternative methods.
The researchers caution that this paper has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet, and that they welcome the comments of other scholars as they refine their work. They also note that like other media, VR may lead to more empathy or more aggression depending on the type of content. But for now, this meta-analysis shows that VR experiences can activate empathic emotions, but may not help bring a deeper understanding of other people’s worlds.
About the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is dedicated to improving philanthropy to improve the world by training and empowering students and professionals to be innovators and leaders who create positive and lasting change. The school offers a comprehensive approach to philanthropy through its academic, research and international programs and through The Fund Raising School, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. Follow us on Twitter or “Like” us on Facebook.