New research suggests emerging technology can be a useful tool to encourage empathy, helpful behavior, and positive attitudes towards marginalized groups.

In this case, technology in the form of 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.

Virtual reality (VR) is an interactive computer-generated experience taking place within a simulated environment that incorporates mainly auditory and visual, but also other types of sensory feedback. The technology creates an immersive environment that can be similar to the real world creating an experience that is not possible in ordinary physical reality.

In the new study, Stanford researchers developed a virtual reality experience, called “Becoming Homeless,” to investigate whether Virtual Reality systems (VR) could provide an environment that could introduce empathy via a perspective-taking task.

Empathy, defined as the ability to share and understand others’ emotions, has been shown to foster altruistic or helpful behavior. Traditionally, researchers have attempted to induce empathy with perspective-taking tasks — asking study participants to imagine what it would be like to be someone else under specific circumstances.

Fernanda Herrera, along with Stanford psychology scholar Jamil Zaki, Bailenson and psychology graduate student Erika Weisz, conducted two two-month-long studies with more than 560 participants, age 15 to 88 and representing at least eight ethnic backgrounds. Researcher Elise Ogle was also a co-author on the paper.

During the research, some participants were shown “Becoming Homeless,” a seven-minute VR experience developed by Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

In “Becoming Homeless,” a narrator guides participants through several interactive VR scenarios that would 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 interacting with 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 research.

“We tend to think of empathy as something you either have or don’t have,” said Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology and a co-author of the paper. “But lots of studies have demonstrated that empathy isn’t just a trait. It’s something you can work on and turn up or down in different situations.”

The studies’ results showed that participants in the “Becoming Homeless” condition were significantly more likely to agree with statements like “Our society does not do enough to help homeless people.” They were also more likely to say that they personally cared “very much” about the plight of homeless people. The research also showed that their empathetic attitudes toward the homeless endured.

In addition, according to the first study, 82 percent of participants in the VR condition signed a petition supporting affordable housing versus 67 percent of the people who read a narrative that asked them to imagine becoming homeless.

In the second study, 85 percent in the VR condition signed the petition in comparison to 63 percent who read the narrative. Of participants who went through the two-dimensional version of the VR experience, 66 percent signed the petition.

“What’s special about this research is that it gives us longitudinal evidence that VR changes attitudes and behaviors of people in a positive way,” Bailenson said.

Source: Stanford University