Can Virtual Reality Make Us More Empathetic?

Jun 29, 2016, 2:00 PM, Posted by Deborah Bae

Virtual reality is proving to be a tool to help build the human capacity to care about the realities of others—something that’s needed to tackle social issues like homelessness.

A man tests out a virtual reality headset. Photo Credit: Maurizio Pesce/ Flickr via CC by 2.0

Today, San Francisco media took the unprecedented step of putting aside competitive interests and devoted an entire day of coverage to the issue of homelessness in the Bay Area. Frustrated at inaction over the city's homeless crisis, local newsmakers have flooded the airwaves and filled pages of newsprint to focus attention on the problem and potential solutions.

Homelessness is not just something San Franciscans are struggling with. On any given night, over 1/2 million people in the U.S.—including children and families—are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homeless.

Tackling tough issues like homelessness requires empathy. Having empathy for those in need is a vital first step toward action. We’ve seen events that enable people to “walk a mile” in the shoes of a homeless person be effective at helping build understanding and compassion for the homeless. But what would it mean if people could walk a virtual mile in another’s shoes? Could the immersive nature of virtual reality help us reach more people and build lasting empathy?

Working with researchers at Stanford University, that’s exactly what we hope to find out.

Virtual reality is being billed as the next big thing in entertainment. But what we want to know is: what potential does it have to accelerate our path to a Culture of Health? Early research findings indicate that it can make us more giving and helpful. It can even help us overcome our prejudices.

But does it work for everyone? Can it bring about change at scale? Are its effects long-lasting?

Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab is exploring these questions, using a 12-minute interactive virtual reality simulation that helps people experience what it would be like to be homeless.

Put on the virtual reality goggles and you’re sucked into a computer-generated 3D world. You look to your left. You look up. You look behind you. You’re in a scarcely-furnished apartment. You’re alone.

A voice wraps itself around your head: You’ve lost your job. And it’s time to pay your rent.

Having tried virtual reality, I can say that it is truly amazing. In as little as 30 seconds you’re utterly immersed in the scene that is playing out. Jeremy Bailenson, who heads Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, calls this sense of being there ”presence." You become part of the narrative. You forget everything else that is going on around you.

Next, you’re on the street. You’ve been evicted. You’re living in your car and dealing with one problem after another as you navigate the day-to-day challenges of not having a home.

The research team is taking this virtual reality scenario to museums, malls and other public places to gather data on how these experiences affect people of varying ages and backgrounds.

We’re excited to see what they find. As Jeremy has cautioned on many occasions, virtual reality is such a new technology that there’s a lot we don’t know about it. We need to understand both its potential and also its limits and boundaries. But in the right hands, it could be a potent tool for changing attitudes and changing the way people behave.

Empathy will be critical as we build a Culture of Health. When people are empathetic towards one another, they will take steps to ensure everyone has the opportunity to live the healthiest life they can; to work together to build a Culture of Health for all.

Could doctors use virtual reality to better understand their patients’ struggles, or could teachers use virtual reality to better understand what life is like for their students when they leave the classroom?

And if virtual reality is effective at making someone more empathetic, what other healthy behaviors could it foster? Could it help motivate people to eat healthily or exercise?

How else might we use virtual reality to help build empathy? Please share your ideas below and consider pitching a brief proposal of your idea.

Deborah Bae, MPA, MBA, is a senior program officer at the Foundation. She is interested in discovering and exploring innovative ideas, novel approaches and new ways of thinking and then sharing the learnings both within the Foundation and beyond. Read her full bio.