Mental Health

Can Compassion Be Learned? Virtual Reality Could Help Boost Empathy

Could virtual reality be the antidote for people who struggle with feeling empathy and compassion? 

As we know, the emerging technology allows people to walk in the shoes of another — in a more immersive manner compared to reading a novel or watching a television show. However, researchers are still exploring how VR could influence the attitudes of people.

In a new study, Stanford psychologists showed how the technology could develop longer-lasting compassion in people compared to other forms of media such as text. Unlike past research which only looked at short-term influence, this study examined the long-term effect on empathy, extending beyond a week. 

"We tend to think of empathy as something you either have or don't have," said Jamil 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 participants were a diverse group, involving over 560 people aged 15 to 88, including at least eight ethnic backgrounds. Some of the participants were shown "Becoming Homeless," a seven-minute VR experience developed by Stanford University.

As a part of the interactive experience, participants experienced a number of VR scenarios exploring tough circumstances after losing a job. In one scene, they had to choose belongings to sell off in order to pay the rent. In another, they use a public bus as a shelter — which meant protecting their belongings from being stolen by a stranger.

"Taking the perspective of others in VR produces more empathy and prosocial behaviors in people immediately after going through the experience and over time in comparison to just imagining what it would be like to be in someone else's shoes," said Fernanda Herrera, a graduate student in the Department of Communication and the lead author of the paper.

Indeed, the participants who underwent the VR experience tended to have positive attitudes toward the homeless and were almost 20 percent more likely to sign a petition in support of affordable housing.

This was in comparison to participants who experienced the same scenarios through other media such as reading a narrative or interacting with a two-dimensional version of the scenes on a computer. 

The Stanford team called it an "exciting finding" and are working on other studies to gain a better understanding of how VR affects empathy. They were particularly happy to see that the changes in attitude had endured after much time had passed.

"Long after our studies were complete, some research participants emailed me to reflect on how they started becoming more involved in the issue afterward. One of them befriended a homeless person in their community and wrote me again once that person found a home," Herrera said. "It was really inspiring to see that positive, lasting impact."