Immersive technologies that create vivid experiences by merging the physical world with a computer-generated simulation have been touted in academic papers, TED Talks and the press as effective ways to build empathy. Some of virtual reality’s most zealous supporters have ventured to call VR the “ultimate empathy machine.”
However, is donning a VR headset and participating in an immersive virtual experience any better than traditional empathy-building activities, such as having a face-to-face conversation, watching a film or reading a book, for evoking and building empathy for others?
“It depends on the quality of the empathy-building technique,” says Dr. Jorge Barraza, Program Director and Assistant Professor of Psychology for USC’s Master of Applied Psychology Program (MAPP). While VR and other immersive technology experiences can facilitate perspective taking — i.e., putting the viewer in another person’s shoes — they can be no more effective than traditional media if they lack rich, complex, resonant storytelling. Barraza, whose academic research has focused on the neuroscience of storytelling, says it’s all about “being exposed to the people that you’re trying to empathize with and hearing their lived experience through them.”
In other words, empathy building depends on the quality of the storytelling, not on the medium.
Virtual Reality and Empathy Enhancement
Empathy can be defined as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s situation, both intellectually and emotionally. While neuroscience has shown that empathy is partly inherited, it’s also a learned behavior and, therefore, can be fostered through intervention. This includes the ability to understand or imagine what other people are feeling, defined as cognitive empathy, and feelings of care and concern in response to another’s situation, defined as emotional empathy.
A 2021 meta-analysis published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior explored the question of immersive technology and empathy and whether VR lives up to its reputation as the ultimate empathy machine. The study found that while different types of VR experiences can increase empathy, VR elicits compassionate feelings (emotional empathy) but doesn’t appear to encourage cognitive empathy: the ability to imagine other people’s perspectives. Moreover, the analysis found that VR wasn’t any more effective at increasing empathy than less technologically advanced interventions, such as reading about others and imagining their experiences, a finding that Barraza supports.
“There’s the expectation that these technologies are so immersive on the senses that they lead to more learning and understanding,” says Barraza, adding that isn’t necessarily the case. As an example, he cites a colleague’s work developing VR content on a particular social problem, with the idea that it would lead to a greater change in hearts and minds than a video. However, when compared, the impact of VR and video proved to be about equal and, by some measures, he said, the VR was actually less effective because viewers were captivated by the experience and apparently distracted from the message.
Using VR Avatars for Empathy Enhancement
Embodying an avatar — an electronic image that represents people or animals — may hold greater promise for fostering empathy through immersive technology and storytelling, says Barraza, who’s a big fan of James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar movie franchise. He notes that the movie’s rich and complex world building drew viewers into the world of the characters: “I remember stories being told about people almost having these withdrawal symptoms because of their desire to be part of that world.”
The Neuroscience of Storytelling
Studying the physiological responses to effective storytelling is a focus of both Barraza’s academic research and his work as chief science officer at Immersion Neuroscience, the company he cofounded in 2019. Immersion Neuroscience works with brands to measure the degree of consumer immersion in different kinds of content and experiences.
The company’s technology, called Immersion, includes three products, including Known, a product that tests content such as advertisements, movie trailers and product experiences to identify what resonates most with an audience. “Our technology isn’t necessarily about selling more stuff,” explains Barraza. “It’s about finding a connection between what the brand is doing and what the consumers are resonating with.” Immersion helps consumer brands target their content to the audiences with which it’s likely to resonate the most.
Immersion uses wearable devices like Apple Watch, which contains a photoplethysmography (PPG) sensor, worn by test subjects to measure resonance. PPG uses infrared light to measure the volumetric variations of blood circulation, which ultimately measures changes in heart rhythm through the pulse. From that, Immersion can extrapolate heart rhythm, not just heart rate. “We care about heart rhythm because it’s associated with brain activity and the hormone oxytocin,” Barraza says.
Barraza and a colleague have spent the past 15 years investigating the connection between oxytocin and trust among strangers and its connection to differences in empathy among different people.
The Power of Narrative Transportation
Barraza’s earlier research on storytelling introduced him to the concept of narrative transportation: the experience of being immersed in the world of a story. In his psychology classes and when testing for empathy, he uses the story of a father whose son died in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Listening to the rich story of their last morning together at a local diner, the listener can’t help but imagine the smell of coffee and the clanking of plates and silverware. “That’s the power of our brains,” explains Barraza, adding that the story makes most people cry. “They’re meant to be empathy machines.”
Putting Psychology to Work
Students enrolled in USC’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology Program (MAPP) hone their knowledge in organizational and consumer from accomplished faculty with extensive academic and business-world experience like Barraza. Find out how to combine your passion for psychology and business with a USC MAPP degree.