Can virtual reality make us more empathetic?
An increasing body of research indicates that cognitive skills and high IQ (Intelligence Quotient) alone will not guarantee success in life. Rather, skills of emotional intelligence dictate how successful we are.
The good news is that emotional intelligence can be learned – and taught. And it should be – not only are the skills of empathy and understanding critical for being successfully and peacefully able to share the restricted resources of our planet amongst the soon-to-be 8 billion of us, but they also create the optimal foundations for learning. Empathy and confidence are fundamental in developing ideas and solutions, in problem-solving, effective communication, and avoiding or preventing conflicts.¹
Promoting empathy through education
The concerning news, on the other hand, is that our modern educational systems seem to fail to promote emotional intelligence.² Schools appear to be in need of proper tools. Teamwork, role-play and a classroom culture of focused listening have been shown to be beneficial for learning empathy skills.¹ In our time of interconnectedness and globalization, virtual reality (VR) experiences can prepare children and youth for diverse encounters and environments, which are also likely to be an integral part of their future life experience.
Researchers Håkansson and Montgomery³ have identified four prerequisites for feeling empathy:
1. The empathizer understands the target’s situation and emotions.
2. The target experiences one or more emotions.
3. The empathizer perceives a similarity with his or her own prior experience.
4. The empathizer is concerned for the target’s well-being.
Eyeing this list, it seems like reading textbooks is not quite enough to increase empathy skills. Instead, schools should be able to promote a safe environment for experiencing various emotions and circumstances.
Virtual reality in building understanding
VR immersion is a powerful gateway into other people’s thinking and life situations. Quoting the fascinating Project Empathy⁴:
“Empathy forges a path forward for us, even when we disagree with another's behavior or beliefs... Unlike traditional media, VR is an empathy machine and allows us to feel for a moment what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
Creating impact through virtual reality
In this way, empathy can help close the gap between “us” and “them”. Research supports this assumption: VR can have a deep effect on behavior. Experiments include whether seeing an elderly avatar of oneself prompts one to save more money for retirement. It does. And whether watching the world through the eyes of a color-blind person makes the observer more willing to help them, as opposed to just imagining the experience. Again, yes.⁵
We do not need technology to feel empathy, fortunately, but the possibilities are exciting. If we could better learn to understand different people near and far, progress towards a friendlier world would seem inevitable.
The writer is a teacher, teacher-educator, educational content designer and edutech psychology geek.
1 Ioannidou, F. and Konstantikaki, V. (2008). Empathy and emotional intelligence: What is it really about? International Journal of Caring Sciences, 1(3):118–123.
2 Goleman. D. and Cherniss, C. (2001). The Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace. Jossey-Bass.
3 Håkansson, J., and Montgomery, H. (in press). Empathy as an interpersonal phenomenon. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.