Empathy is the ability to see things through someone else’s eyes or to walk a mile in their shoes. Researchers at Stanford recently tested the truth of these proverbial sayings using virtual reality (VR). They let students feel like they were actually seeing through another student’s eyes and walking in their shoes, and measured that experience’s impact on empathy.

180 university students participated in this three-part study. The researchers first surveyed the students about their background, demographic information, and daily routines. Two groups of students then participated in a virtual reality game in which they embodied the avatar of either James or Steve. While both James and Steve were fictional, the researchers led participants to believe that James and Steve were students at their university. The game consisted of looking in the mirror, unpacking a suitcase in a dorm room, giving a presentation about themselves to a class, and working out at the gym. A third control group did not participate in the daily life game, but instead explored the lab in VR without embodying an avatar. After completing the VR activity, students played real-stakes behavioral games on a computer with a remote partner. They were led to believe that they were partnered with either James or Steve while playing the game. The outcome of the games depended on the participants’ perception of their partner. For instance, in one game the players received 10 dollars and had to decide how much money to give their partner. Whatever amount the partner was given tripled, then the partner decided how to reallocate the money. The participants believed they would trade in their gaming dollars for real currency upon completing the game.

The results showed that students showed greater empathy for their gaming partner when the partner’s identity matched the avatar the student had previously embodied. However, when partnered with the identity they had not embodied in VR, students showed empathy equivalent to that of the control group who had not participated in the virtual perspective-taking experience. Furthermore, the more immersed students felt in the virtual environment, the greater empathy they showed. Thus, the researchers concluded that perspective-taking experiences in virtual reality can increase direct empathy for the individual personified in the game, but have not been shown to increase empathy for others beyond that person.

This study suggests the promise of VR for promoting perspective-taking inside and outside the classroom. Are you having trouble understanding a peer, teacher, or historical or literary character? Step into their their virtual skin, and take a walk in their shoes!

van Loon, A., Bailenson, J., Zaki, J., Bostick, J., & Willer, R. (2018). Virtual reality perspective-taking increases cognitive empathy for specific others. PLOS One, 13(8), 1-19.

Image: via Pixabay.