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Five Types of Empathy in The Metaverse and Virtual Spaces

New research illustrates virtual reality can improve certain types of empathy.

Key points

  • New research shows that socially responsible virtual reality programs can successfully promote certain types of empathy.
  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to appreciate how others feel, and affective or emotional empathy is to feel how others are feeling.
  • Cognitive empathy and perspective-taking require more mental effort and focus than emotional or affective empathy.
Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Part 2 in a series on the Psychology of The Metaverse.

Virtual reality and the Metaverse can be designed to improve empathy and human connection, but it is important to distinguish among the different types of empathy that can exist in virtual worlds. Certain kinds of empathy are harder to cultivate than others.

Empathy has been referred to as a muscle that can be strengthened through practice. In a 2015 TED talk, Virtual Reality (VR) Developer Chris Milk called VR "the ultimate empathy machine." Multiple VR companies have invested in programs to incentivize designers to create content for social good, including Oculus’s 2016 “VR for Good” initiative and the 2017 HTC VIVE “VR for Impact” program.

Empathy is a complex and multidimensional concept that has evolved over many centuries. In 1759, Adam Smith described two types of empathy: 1) an emotional reaction to others, and 2) the ability to recognize the other person’s emotional state (the latter does not necessarily mean one experiences an emotional reaction to the other's state). Modern-day empathy theories propose that empathy comes from a “dual process” involving both automatic unconscious and conscious processes.

What are the different types of empathy?

1. Emotional empathy or “affective empathy” is the ability to share another person's feelings. This is considered an immediate automatic emotional response and is achieved through emotional connection.

"I can feel in my body what others are feeling." (bottom-up processing)

Emotional empathy is the product of our fight-or-flight response system in the body. This is neurobiological response called "bottom-up processing" which delivers feedback from the body to the brain. Emotional empathy is a visceral response. For example if you see a tragic story unfold in a movie, this may trigger emotional empathy for the character.

2. Cognitive empathy or "perspective-taking empathy" or "projective empathy" is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. This type of empathy may be improved through “perspective-taking” exercises and communication. This kind of empathy requires more mental effort.

"I appreciate and get how others are feeling and thinking." (top-down processing)

Cognitive empathy is the complex product of “mentalizing,” or the act of putting oneself in others’ shoes and figuring out the thoughts and feelings of another person. This active "top-down processing" mode takes more effort and concentration. Distractions or being flooded with emotions makes cognitive empathy harder.

Going further, there are two subtypes of cognitive empathy: "imagine-self" and "imagine-other" perspective taking:

2A. Imagine-other perspective-taking "being someone" – to imagine the perspective of other subjects, grasping their thoughts, feelings, decisions, psychological traits.

2B. Imagine-self perspective-taking "being in someone else's shoes" – to imagine the thoughts, feelings, decisions, characteristics of how you would feel in the other's circumstances.

These two types of cognitive empathy are neurologically and psychologically different. "Imagine-other" perspective-taking requires the most mental flexibility and the ability to set aside one's immediate reactions, emotions, and feelings ("emotional regulation").

3. Compassionate empathy or “empathic concern” is the kind of empathy that moves one to take action and help others. This kind of empathy is focused on another person's suffering and drives someone to take action.

"I feel and recognize the suffering of others and want to do something to relieve their suffering."

What types of empathy can be improved in virtual worlds?

Virtual reality experiences can be effective at enhancing "emotional empathy" or "affective empathy." But the ability for virtual worlds to impact deeper levels of cognitive and compassionate empathy is still up in the air.

Non-real time virtual "experiences" have been designed to try to enhance cognitive and action-oriented empathy. Immersive virtual experiences have been designed to provide users with experiences of becoming homeless, encountering racism, or being in a refugee camp. There are virtual experiences that embody the user in non-human beings as well-- an experience where the user becomes a cow in a slaughterhouse or a tree in during a fire. The embodied tree experience did help people reflect more on nature.

While these virtual experiences educate and expand our experiences, it is still unclear if these virtual experiences will have a lasting impact on changing behavior or attitudes. Some scholars and philosophers have argued that trying to improve a user's cognitive empathy is not only impossible but also unethical since, they argue, a person cannot actually ever truly imagine another person's subjective experience ("imagine-other perspective taking") without their psychological makeup or life experience.

Even if empathy cannot be "perfect," perhaps it is the effort that makes all the difference. Virtual experiences can help people better grasp and expand their awareness of the experience of other. As technology and accessibility to virtual experiences grow, so will the potential for these different types of empathy to thrive inside virtual spaces.

Part 1: Can Empathy Exist In The Metaverse and Virtual Reality?

Part 3: The Many Worlds of The Metaverse

Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC Copyright © 2022

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