Empathy is defined as the ability to share and understand the feelings of another. Perspective taking is the ability to understand another’s point of view. For more than a decade, researchers at our lab have conducted studies examining these two areas utilizing the unique affordance of virtual reality (VR) that allows users to walk a virtual mile in the shoes of another. Previous studies include using virtual reality to teach empathy toward those with disabilities, with different skin color, with different economic goals, and from different age groups and have demonstrated varying degrees of effectiveness.
Our most recent projects have focused on studying empathy at scale and racism.
Empathy at Scale
With funding by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, researchers from our lab – along with our academic partner, Jamil Zaki – have been exploring what makes VR empathy scenarios effective. Previous empathy-related research, including our own, has suffered from the following shortcomings:
Not longitudinal – most studies don’t follow subjects over time, so they can’t determine lasting effects of treatment
Small and homogeneous samples – typically upper-class college students near the age of twenty, limiting researchers’ abilities to draw conclusions across different cultures and communities
The empathy at scale project focused on a scenario that asked people to take the perspective of someone who was evicted and living without a home. First was a longitudinal study, following close to 100 participants for up to two months. The second collected data from a large, demographically diverse sample, approximately 1000 participants from all over the Bay Area. Both showed the VR led to significant differences in attitudes towards and behavior to help people who are homeless. The full study is available here.
When researching VR empathy, it is also important to show the boundaries of these effects. In a follow up paper to the homeless study, we demonstrated that how one does VR is critical. We split a large sample into high movers and low movers. High movers explored the scene properly and were able to experience all of the narrative action. Low movers missed events because they tended to look forward without turning their heads. Low movers were equal to the pure control condition, which did no VR, in terms of helping the homeless, but high movers were substantially higher than both groups. Like any practice session, VR needs to be done properly to cause empathy.
Currently we are studying the hypothesis that empathy is a generalized skill which can be strengthened by perspective taking in VR. We are testing to see if a VR empathy demo in one domain (i.e., homelessness) causes behavior change in another (i.e., climate change).
With funding from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation as well as the Heart Foundation, we are using the medium of VR to examine racism. In collaboration with Dr. Courtney Cogburn from Columbia University, we have created 1000 Cut Journey, an immersive virtual reality experience that allows you to walk in the shoes of Michael Sterling, a Black male, and encounter racism first-hand, as a young child, an adolescent, and a young adult. Understanding the social realities of racism is critical to promoting effective and collective social action.
As the project continues, we are examining the effects of this immersive virtual experience on changes in psychological processes, including empathy/social perspective taking, racial bias, and decision making. We are also building the architecture for wide-scale distribution within a number of organizations, as well as making technological adjustments to allow us to distribute the experience across multiple hardware and software platforms.
1000 Cut Journey was an official selection at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, and New Orleans Film Festival. It has been demoed for C-Suite executives and employees of over a dozen Fortune 500 companies. We are now collaborating with the award-winning studio, iNK Stories, on the next iteration.