Walking a Mile: Building Real Empathy in Virtual Reality

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“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  – To Kill a Mockingbird


According to President Barack Obama, the federal deficit isn’t the only major deficiency America is facing; we must also address our national “empathy deficit“. Empathy is when you feel with another person, when you understand what it would be like to experience another person’s pleasure or pain. This is in contrast to compassion, which is feeling for another person.  Compassion is fairly easy to build, but empathy is significantly harder.

Obama is not alone in contemplating the importance of empathy. Dr. Dan Goleman has written about the importance of empathy in effective leadership, Daniel Pink has written about empathy as a necessary skill for workers in the 21st century, and there’s a wide body of research demonstrating the importance of empathy in romantic relationships. On a broader societal level, a lack of empathy can exacerbate existing divisions, whether these divisions be racial, political, or religious.

Traditionally, the best way to foster empathy is to have people metaphorically “walk in someone else’s shoes”.  By forcing people to think through another person’s perspective, they can gain an understanding and an appreciation for someone else’s point of view.

Today, however, we have the opportunity to let people literally walk in someone else’s shoes.  Immersive virtual reality (VR) headsets like the Oculus Rift present users with the ability to literally occupy a different perspective in virtual space. Although it is primarily thought of as a gaming device, VR could actually be the greatest machine for generating empathy man has ever created.

Moving around in virtual reality usually requires an “avatar”, or a virtual agent that one inhabits to accomplish things in virtual space. Using an avatar is a lot like playing a first person video game, except that in VR, the illusion that you’re actually occupying the avatars body is very convincing. The film Avatar provides an excellent example of this concept: the marine slipped on a headset (and some other tracking technology) and was able to fully occupy the giant blue body of a “Na’vi”. He was able to see through the Na’vi’s eyes as if they were his own and (spoiler alert) eventually grew to empathize so deeply that he fought with them against the humans.

It turns out that occupying avatars produces empathy outside of Hollywood film sets as well. A study from Royal Holloway University of London and the University of Barcelona found that putting white participants into dark-skinned avatars led to measurable increases in empathy. The level of immersion was high enough to make participants truly identify with their avatars (i.e. a white man felt like he was in the body of a black man). The end result was a reduction in perceptions of difference between races and a lower score on an implicit racial bias test.

This effect is not limited to race. In virtual reality, you can occupy the avatar of anyone of any age. One nursing home in the UK leveraged this fact to great benefit by using an immersive VR recreation of dementia. This award winning simulation put the nurses into the body of an elderly person and gave them a first-person experience of the disorientation and confusion that comes with dementia. Not only did this increase feelings of empathy in the nurses, but it also led to concrete changes in the way the nursing home was structured and managed (watch a video of their reactions here). This kind of empathetic education is something only possible in immersive virtual reality.

Imagine how much more powerful the “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” would have been if you could have felt the harassment from the first-person perspective of the woman walking down the street. Or imagine if anti-bullying campaigns relied less on lectures and more on virtual experiences that let kids truly feel what it’s like to be bullied. Diversity, tolerance, and inclusion training seminars of all types – whether in corporate offices, schools, or police departments – stand to benefit greatly from letting people see the world through the eyes of those different from them.

Immersive virtual reality will almost certainly revolutionize gaming. But if VR can also allow people to exercise and grow their empathy muscles, it could revolutionize how we relate to other people as well.


**UPDATE** Since writing this in early January, there have been a number of articles published on this topic due to an experience from Sundance. You can read more coverage at NPR or TechCrunch

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