Is Virtual Reality an 'Empathy Machine'? Some Charities Think So

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A Syrian woman and her child sit in their refugee living space in Lebanon. They are featured in Four Walls, a virtual reality presentation by the International Rescue Committee. (YouVisit Studios)

Media coverage of tragedy — terrorist attacks, homelessness, the refugee crisis — can be so overwhelming it's numbing. Charities say it can also make it harder to get support.

Some are hoping a new form of media will be more persuasive — virtual reality or VR, which they think makes people more empathetic.

At a recent New York City fundraiser for the International Rescue Committee, attendees could step away from the mingling and have a more direct connection to the people they were there to help. A few seats were set up where the guests could sit down and put on a VR headset.

Once they've donned the headset the guest is immersed in the world of a refugee camp in Lebanon. Cheryl Henson, an IRC donor, says that via VR she was in a family's tent, watching children play.

"It's a very effective way to feel like you're there in the room because you have a real sense of these are real people," she says. "There's the food, there's the clothes, there's the talk."


This sense of really being there is why some fans of VR have dubbed it "the empathy machine."

Henson's reaction was fairly typical of others who have tried the Lebanon experience, says Cathe Neukum, executive producer for the IRC. "We can't bring donors or people to the field, but we bring the field to donors and our constituents and our supporters," she says. "That's what's so great about VR; that's what makes it, I think, such an important tool for charities."

Other charities are also trying VR, including Amnesty International and the Clinton Foundation.

"The goal ultimately is that when you take the headset off, you have the inspiration to act in real life," says Gordon Meyer, director of marketing for YouVisit, which created the VR experience for the IRC.

No one knows for sure whether VR is a more powerful tool than other media for getting people to act charitably, but it is a subject of serious study.

Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has been studying VR since its earliest days. He says there is increasing evidence that VR can be more effective than other media in evoking empathy. But it has to be done right.

"What we know how to do well is to create these experiences that really leverage what's called embodied cognition, which is moving through a space, looking around, using your eyes, using your body to interact with the scene and that's what makes VR special," Bailenson says.

Right now his lab is studying whether VR makes people more empathetic to homeless people than other forms of media do. One group gets a video or some literature and the other group has the VR experience.

The VR experience puts you in the shoes of someone who goes through a journey that ends in homelessness.

"You start out in your home and you find out that you've lost your job," Bailenson says. "You struggle to make rent and you use your body to pick items in your home to sell to try to make your rent so you don't get evicted."

Of course, you do get evicted. And you find yourself living in your car. Your car gets towed and you find yourself trying to sleep on a bus. On the bus, you must guard your backpack from thieves all night long.

Journalist Vignesh Ramachandran, who participated in the study, says he's read a lot about homelessness but something about the experience of protecting his stuff on the bus got to him.

"I just remember thinking like, 'Oh my gosh' you just can't imagine having to constantly be looking out for your safety just when you're trying to get a good night's sleep," he says. "That part was like striking to me."

After the VR experience the participants are asked to sign a petition for housing for the homeless. The study will look at whether they or the people who read material and saw a video are more likely to sign.

But using VR to promote empathy has its skeptics. Paul Bloom, a Yale psychology professor and author of Against Empathy, thinks that if these kinds of VR experiences become common they will be no more effective than any other media.

"Empathy — feeling the suffering of other people — is fatiguing. It leads to burnout. It leads to withdrawal," Bloom says. "The best therapists, the best doctors, the best philanthropists are people who don't feel the suffering of others. It's just people who care about others want to help, but do it joyously."

Bloom says he may be old school, but he thinks if you really want to get into the head of another human being and understand them, try reading a good novel.

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