Measuring Empathy in Virtual Reality

At a recent conference, I was presented with one of the most intriguing questions I’ve had as a social scientist — how can we qualify that virtual reality triggers empathy and action? It’s a hurt-your-brain question. The kind I love best.

So to start the thought process, I took a seat, put on my headset, and was plunged into a Syrian refugee camp where I had dinner with a family of 5 who had been at the camp for 2+ years. As they sat on the ground and passed around the evening bread, the teenaged girl said, “I love my mother’s cooking. No matter where I am, it tastes the same.” I then marveled at the resilience that physically surrounded me, as kids played soccer, attended a makeshift school and carried on life as a kid as best they could. I waited with jittery excitement for my next speaker break, and bolted back to the demo booth to visit East Africa with President Clinton. I sat across from a girl learning to hear for the first time. I leaned forward as she heard her first words, and her parents — and I, though suspended in time — participated in her joy. I stumbled away from each of these stories with a few new seeds planted in my DNA.

Enter VR as an empathy trigger.

I’m a social scientist who does qualitative research. I’m big on empathy, which I train clients and team members to turn on (yes, like a switch) before engaging with any human being. Lest empathy be tossed out as a tiresome buzzword, I’m here to say that VR will revive it — and then some. In the social psychology world, empathy is defined as the ability to feel the same thing as another person. There are ways to measure where one falls on the empathy scale. The Empathy Quotient, originally created to diagnose Autism spectrum disorders, has crept into casual use to measure cognitive empathy or perspective taking — the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. But there’s something missing from this gauge. Psychometric measures can make the mistake of operationalizing empathy as a fixed trait — you are either empathetic or not. The ability to recognize and commiserate with someone else’s suffering or joy is not solely innate. Empathy can be a learned communication skill, just like public speaking, writing, recognizing nonverbal cues, or conversational turn-taking.

After being immersed in the VR experiences that day, I began thinking about baseline and triggered empathy. The correct terms for each are dispositional or situational, respectively. In the old guard, the belief is that one is born with a disposition to be an empathic person, across the board. Moving forward, our connected global society offers increasing opportunities to experience the life of another with unparalleled closeness. Each VR experience left me with specific triggers, which activated my empathy. I will never hear the word refugee, or refugee camp, the same way again. I had a profound feeling of sameness, of being one with these people across the world from me. This is situational empathy, and VR triggers it through immersion. Had there been an option to donate, write a letter, send goods, or get involved on the spot, I would have acted. Once I leave that situation and return to my own life, my action window decreases as the experience gets further away, but the imprint is permanent.

Here’s the coolest bit about how VR is changing the rules of empathy. Over time, situational empathy can become part of one’s disposition. When we experience being in someone else’s shoes in the way that VR allows, we have repeated positive reinforcement. Repetition is the road to attitude change, such that the next time there is an ask around refugees, I am that much more likely to act. Can we say that empathy is lasting, ongoing, and sure to lead to behavior change? Not yet. But VR is the next step in human engagement and empathic storytelling. When the technology fully diffuses, expect social impact like we’ve never seen before. I look forward to creating new methods of researching this medium.

As a force for good, VR is just beginning to show its power to propel human consciousness in the right direction.

Photo by Taylor Jacobs