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Can Empathy Exist in the Metaverse and Virtual Reality?

Research shows empathy and social connection can be designed into the Metaverse.

Key points

  • Research suggests "virtual empathy" is possible if creators of virtual worlds keep empathic design principles in mind.
  • In virtual worlds, there may be a heightened merging of the "self" and "other."
  • How virtual humans are designed can directly influence people's capacity for empathy in virtual worlds.
Source: Bradley/Pexels

Can virtual reality, the Metaverse, web 3.0, and virtual humans that populate these worlds be designed in a way that enhances empathy and social connection? Current and new research suggests "virtual empathy" is possible—if creators of these virtual worlds keep empathic design principles in mind.

Designers of the Metaverse and web 3.0 can create and implement virtual reality worlds in a way that can enhance empathy and cultivate connection, but this requires paying close attention to emerging research in the field of empathy and social connection in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and human-computer interactions.

For the most part, research suggests that most interactions with a virtual human can be very similar to interactions with a real human. Interestingly, even the presence of a virtual human as a bystander can make people react as if they were being observed (i.e., the Hawthorne effect), even though when asked directly about this, people will not admit that there is an impact of a virtual human's presence.

Social interaction rules also seem generally well-preserved, such as communication through gazes and social cues, even though the neurobiology of it may differ. Even the controversial Milgram electric shock obedience social psychology experiment from the 1960s has been replicated with virtual humans in 2006 (though participants fully knew that the virtual humans were not, in fact, being shocked).

While many social interactions stay the same, there are two important and different phenomenon that occur in virtual worlds. One is a heightened merging of the "self" and "other." This "self-other merging" phenomenon means more blurred boundaries between self and other virtual humans. One theory for why this happens is that people in virtual worlds ascribe or "project" more positive traits to others and, as a consequence, are more willing to help others. This may not be a bad thing. In fact, it could mean more empathy in virtual worlds. However, this "self-other merging" could make people more vulnerable to bad actors in the Metaverse and relationships potentially less authentic if people are not really "seeing" each other.

A second notable difference in virtual worlds is the Proteus effect. Is it possible that the design of avatars and virtual humans may have an influence on "virtual empathy"? Yes. The "Proteus effect" was first described in 2007 by Stanford researchers and is the phenomenon describing how people change their behavior in virtual worlds based on the characteristics of their avatar, such as visual features. In other words, people will engage in behaviors different than they would normally and conform to what is expected or stereotypical behavior based on the appearance of their avatars. As a result, how virtual humans are designed can directly influence people's capacity for empathy in virtual worlds.

Recent research in the journal Computers and Human Behavior found that specific ways of visual representation and expression of pain can create more awareness and emotional perception among virtual humans. One study found that adding more specific bodily trunk movement and specific facial expression to an avatar made people much more aware of the avatar's pain. Researchers measured observer pupil size and found a much greater reaction when the avatar moved their body and face in a certain way (likely mediated through a mirror neuron process). Another study revealed how specific facial expressions of pain (e.g., brow lowering, nose wrinkling, and upper lip raising, orbit tightening and eyelid closure) and certain combinations and order of these expressions were most effective at conveying pain to others. The nuance of avatar and virtual human design will play a large role in the cultivation of and capacity for virtual empathy.

Experiences in virtual worlds have also translated real-world behavior. Both VR and AR can even be leveraged as tools to enhance empathy and perspective-taking and even work towards violence prevention. Studies in immersive virtual reality have examined whether virtual reality and augmented reality can be used to improve empathy, enhance bystander behavior to help others, and even reduce real-world violence. In a study published in Nature, researchers worked with 20 men who had been aggressors in domestic violence and put them in an immersive virtual scene where the men were put into the experience of virtual women bodies. After being embodied as virtual women who experienced a virtual domestic abuse scenario, the men were better able to recognize fear and unhappiness in women's faces—an important finding since being able to recognize emotions of others is considered an important underlying problem with aggressive behavior.

As we enter web 3.0, understanding these psychological principles of empathic design and virtual human-mediated communication is more important than ever. We are continuing to understand how empathy will exist in the Metaverse and how it can be mediated and encouraged. While many have cautioned against the potential harmful psychological effects of the Metaverse, technological advances are rarely—if ever—reductionistic enough to be either fully dystopian or utopian. The important conversation to have now is how we and the trailblazers in this industry can all work together to build an ethical and moral framework for the Metaverse grounded in empathic design and social connection.

This is part of a series of Dr. Wei's posts on virtual reality and psychology. See related:

Marlynn Wei, M.D., PLLC Copyright © 2021.


Hu, Xinhui & Nanjappan, Vijayakumar & Georgiev, Georgi. (2021). Seeing from the Users' Eyes: An Outlook to Virtual-Reality Based Empathic Design Research. Proceedings of the Design Society International Conference on Engineering Design. 1. 2601-2610. 10.1017/pds.2021.521.

Bombari Dario, Schmid Mast Marianne, Canadas Elena, Bachmann Manuel (2015). Studying social interactions through immersive virtual environment technology: virtues, pitfalls, and future challenges. Frontiers in Psychology. 6. 869.

Treal, T., Jackson, P. L., & Meugnot, A. (2020). Combining trunk movement and facial expression enhances the perceived intensity and believability of an avatar's pain expression. Computers in Human Behavior, 112, Article 106451.

Tessier, M.-H., Gingras, C., Robitaille, N., & Jackson, P. L. (2019). Toward dynamic pain expressions in avatars: Perceived realism and pain level of different action unit orders. Computers in Human Behavior, 96, 95–109.

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