- Recent research challenges the view of VR as the "ultimate empathy machine."
- While VR can temporarily increase emotional empathy, these effects largely dissipate after 10 days.
- VR’s effect on cognitive empathy is no greater than low-tech solutions like audiobooks.
Virtual Reality (VR) is often praised as the "ultimate empathy machine," but does it genuinely boost our understanding and compassion toward others? Research presents an inconsistent picture. Some studies indicate VR can enhance self-reported empathy and positive attitudes. However, the impact of VR on empathy doesn't always exceed traditional, cost-effective methods like imagination or role-play.
The key to these findings may lie in the distinction between emotional empathy (feeling others' emotions) and cognitive empathy (understanding others' emotions without necessarily getting emotionally involved). A recent meta-analysis suggests that VR, especially 360-degree videos, can enhance emotional empathy, but its effect on cognitive empathy is less marked.
This discrepancy stems from the dual-process nature of empathy. Emotional empathy is typically a quick, automatic response, similar to the emotional pull from a poignant charity advertisement. Cognitive empathy, in contrast, requires conscious deliberation and effort, somewhat akin to the mental immersion needed when acting or writing creatively.
360-degree VR aligns more with evocative ads triggering emotional empathy rather than complex and ambiguous experiences that stimulate cognitive empathy. While VR is celebrated for reducing the cognitive effort of perspective-taking, this feature might be a double-edged sword. VR experiences might deprive users of opportunities to actively develop their cognitive empathy skills.
While the potential of VR to boost helping behaviors is debatable, many charities have harnessed its immersive power. For example, the charity Water claims that its VR experience generated $2.4 million in donations.1 Similarly, UNICEF is testing its VR film, Clouds Over Sidra, across 40 countries, reportedly doubling their donation rate and increasing the donated amount by 10 percent. Impressive, indeed, but let's hold off on drawing conclusions without further rigorous scientific analysis.
Only a few studies have delved into this territory, recording real behavior change post-VR exposure. For example, a VR experience of chopping down a tree led to participants using fewer paper napkins. Another VR scenario, in which users embodied a kidney donation patient, reportedly increased donations to a dialysis organization.
But does VR, particularly 360-degree videos, truly outdo low-tech alternatives? Results are mixed, suggesting a careful selection of control groups is crucial. In some cases, 360-degree videos were no more effective than viewing the same content on a regular computer screen.
A Rigorous Test of VR Power
One shortcoming of previous research is the lack of meticulous controls. Most studies had VR groups differing in multiple aspects, including content, immersion, and novelty. This muddles our understanding, making it hard to separate the effects of VR from other variables. To rectify this, we introduced four improvements in our study, including VR control groups, single-blind procedures, combining self-report and behavioral measures, and conducting a follow-up session to evaluate long-term impacts.
We tested 155 adults recruited from New York City, a diverse group regarding age, race, and income. We offered them a remuneration package for participating in the initial VR testing session and completing a follow-up survey 10 days later.
Each participant was assigned to one of four groups: an experimental condition (Classic or Boost) or one of two control conditions (Audiobook or Waiting Room). All groups used the Oculus Go VR headset for approximately 12 minutes. Participants in the Classic group watched a documentary-style 360-degree video called The Displaced, created by The New York Times. It describes the experiences of three children driven from their homes by war.
Participants in the Boost group watched the same video and were instructed to take the children's perspectives. Participants in the Audiobook group read three substantially similar stories about each child, also written by The New York Times. The text was projected onto a virtual whiteboard and was read aloud by an actor while the text scrolled on the screen. The Waiting Room group required participants to wait in a 360-video virtual waiting room shot with the same high-definition camera type used in the experimental VR conditions.
After the 12-minute experience, all participants completed behavioral and self-report empathy measures and were asked if they were willing to donate some of their payment to a UNICEF charity supporting refugees.
The results were mixed. On the positive side, VR experiences did temporarily increase emotional empathy. Our experimental VR conditions, "Classic" and "Boost," led to significant increases in emotional empathy immediately after the VR experience. In other words, people participating in these immersive experiences felt more emotionally connected to the subjects they observed. However, this effect seemed to have vanished after 10 days.
Moreover, the VR experiences didn't enhance cognitive empathy, the ability to understand another person's perspective, more than traditional audiobooks did.
Perhaps the most critical finding was that these immersive VR experiences didn't translate into increased donations to charity. Even though the cause participants were asked to donate to was directly related to the VR experience, the amount they donated didn't differ based on whether they'd experienced the VR video.
These findings challenge the prevailing assumption that VR is a powerful tool for stimulating empathy and promoting charitable giving. While it certainly has a role, it doesn't appear to offer unique benefits beyond more traditional methods like audiobooks.
While our study has limitations, it underscores the importance of thorough and careful assessment before investing heavily in 360-degree VR technology for empathy training or fundraising purposes. As we navigate this era of rapid technological advancement, it's crucial to remember that complex emotions and decisions may require more than just donning a VR headset–sometimes, traditional methods like storytelling, and shared experiences. Human connections might be just as effective, if not more so.
Martingano, A. J., Konrath, S., Henritze, E., & Brown, A. D. (2021). The Limited Benefits of Using Virtual Reality 360° Videos to Promote Empathy and Charitable Giving. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 08997640221125804. https://doi.org/10.1177/08997640221125804