Could Virtual Reality Make Us Better People?

Scientists are using new immersive technology to have people virtually walk a mile in others shoes. Can we create empathy with just a silly headset?


When we talk about digital media being more immersive, it’s usually not good news for social skills. We worry about the kids. So when news first started coming out that virtual reality was making its way into universities and schools, some parents and pundits were, understandably, concerned. The idea of students at any age being encouraged to spend even more time in the digital world just seemed like another step on the road toward a future society filled with self-absorbed zombies, at turns aggressive and indifferent, lacking empathy and the ability to communicate with each other.


Recent and ongoing research, however, has found that immersive virtual reality scenarios–digital media that enables people to virtually experience something that feels more or less real–could actually encourage “pro-social” behaviors. Virtual reality has been shown to engender racial sensitivity in participants, as well as greater empathy for those with disabilities, respect for the environment, and an increased willingness to help others.

Here’s how it works: Equipped with a headset, like the Oculus Rift, and sometimes a joystick, users are placed into an alternate reality. They might be flying through a cityscape like a superhero, for example, or see themselves as a different race, gender, or age. In the most sophisticated lab studies, various calibrations are made and the graphics are top notch, but even much lower-tech varieties can effectively shift ideas and behaviors, according to University of Georgia researcher Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, PhD. Ahn’s lab uses mostly off-the-shelf technology: an Oculus Rift headset, a Novint Falcon joystick, and Microsoft Kinect.

Ahn has experimented with virtual reality scenarios mocked up on digital kiosks and found them effective as well. In one ongoing study, Ahn has examined the effect of virtual pets on children’s physical activity levels. She and her team recently placed a digital kiosk at a summer camp, had kids personalize a virtual pet and paired them for all future interactions. A control group was given a similar computer program that encouraged physical activity, but without the virtual pet. The treatment group interacted with their virtual pets for three days, setting physical activity goals and teaching tricks to the virtual pet when their goals were met. The virtual pet became more fit and learned more sophisticated tricks as the children achieved activity goals. The result? The virtual pet kids engaged in over an hour more physical activity per day than the no-pet kids, and indicated a greater commitment to continue physical activity in the future.

“The more immersed you are the impact is slightly larger, but you have to do a cost-benefit analysis,” Ahn says. “Is it worth all the cost of building out a highly immersive studio with tracking capabilities?”

Minding the Gaps

As hardware costs drop, Ahn sees no limit to the potential applications for virtual reality. Her research has found the use of digital avatars effective in conveying health messages to people by simply showing them the effect of poor health choices on their future selves. “Right now, the main way people get that information is through pamphlets at the doctor’s office–it’s often not very effective,” she says. “But if you could pair a virtual experience with the pamphlet, that could really amplify what the pamphlet is trying to do. It helps people visualize the future, and makes the information personally relevant.”

Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University and author of the book Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of Our Virtual Lives, boils the potential pro-social benefits of virtual reality down to three key areas: getting people to understand the environment and their impact on it; reducing inter-group conflict by helping people understand and experience the lives, situations and identities of others; and connecting people with their future selves to help them better grasp the impact that decisions made today will have on their lives several years from now.


The key to virtual reality’s effectiveness is its ability to close both perceptive and temporal gaps. In the case of environmental or health issues, it’s difficult to change behavior today based on something we’re told will happen in the distant future. Showing people those effects today tends to make a big difference.

“One of the biggest issues in communicating risk is the big temporal gap people perceive between cause and effect,” Ahn says, “We don’t see the consequences of present actions, and to make that connection you have to be a really futuristic thinker, but not many people are like that. These virtual experiences again and again have been shown to help people link cause and effect. That’s one definitive strength that virtual reality has over other media platforms.”

And, perhaps most importantly, the effects appear to be lasting.

“Immediately following the exposure, the differences between media don’t seem that different. They all seem effective immediately after,” Ahn says. “But one week later, the effect of virtual reality remains relatively stable whereas the effect of traditional media [like videos or news articles] dissipates. I think this is telling us that what people experience in a sensory way sticks with them over time and the effects are persistent.”

That impact works in the negative, too. Ahn’s former Stanford classmate Jesse Fox, now at Ohio State University, has found over the course of her research that hyper-sexualized avatars of women in video games led both men and women to legitimize rape. In one study, Fox found that women who inhabited hyper-sexualized female avatars were more body-conscious afterward and more accepting of the rape myth (that women who dress or behave in an overtly sexual manner are “asking for it.”). In another, Fox discovered that both men and women were more prone to sexism and acceptance of the rape myth after virtually interacting with a suggestively dressed female who held their gaze and responded to them (versus a conservatively clad woman who avoided their gaze and was nonresponsive).

Next Steps

Researchers are working with various companies, schools, and organizations in an effort to connect their work with products being released on the market. Bailenson, for example, meets regularly with executives from technology companies, including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Samsung, and Sony. “Those are the five giants working on the hardware to get virtual reality to market,” he says. “Everyone believes that the market will soon be flooded with VR hardware. The big question is: what will the content be? So we’re focusing on working with these organizations to get pro-social content paired with video games and movies.”


Bailenson is careful to point out that more research is needed to understand what happens six months and a year out from the initial exposure to virtual reality, and what the limits of efficacy are more generally, too. “What we need to do now is really dig deep into the literature on empathy, and run more studies to get a better understanding of when virtual reality works best,” he says. “There are some instances where you can imagine there would be an emotional backlash — if you’re trying to get a person from group A to really understand what it’s like to be a person from group B, but the two groups have a long-standing conflict and can’t generally be in the same room as each other, having someone from group A look in a mirror and see themselves as a person from group B might elicit an extreme emotional response. There might be boundaries.”

Funding for that research is coming from a variety of sources, including academic institutions, nonprofit foundations, companies (Coca Cola is currently talking to Ahn about using virtual reality to encourage healthy drinking behavior, for example), and the Department of Defense, which is currently funding a whole raft of studies aimed at understanding better how exactly virtual reality impacts the brain, how long the effects last, and how well it can empathy.

Bailenson and his team at Stanford are also currently embarking on a one-year study, funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, during which they will take mobile virtual reality units out to schools, libraries, on trains, to the mall and so forth, gathering data on how virtual reality experiences affect 1,000-odd people, including teenagers, elderly people, people of varying personality types and backgrounds. Bailenson says the results of that work will be crucial to understanding how virtual reality impacts humans more generally. “No one has really collected data like this out in the world, usually you have to bring people into the lab for studies, and that’s limiting,” he says.

The Dark Side

Of course, as is the case with any media, there’s a potential dark side to virtual reality. First, while Bailenson is hopeful that his team’s relationships with big tech companies will result in the inclusion of pro-social content in future applications, there’s no guarantee. Then there’s the issue of addiction.

“Kids today between the ages of 8 and 18, consume media for eight hours per day,” Bailenson says. “When they’re not in school and not sleeping, they are consuming media. So the question is, when Facebook feels like a block party and online gambling feels like Vegas and porn feels like sex, how does that affect the human condition? When we’re proposing to replace physical activities with virtual ones, we have to think about how that affects the motivation to do activities in the natural world.”

Then there’s the simple and amusing–albeit very real–concern about how people will cope with the multi-tasking inherent to virtual reality. The Oculus Rift headset already comes with safety warnings about forgetting your physical surroundings while engaging with a virtual world and thereby falling or bumping into things, and that problem could get infinitely worse as virtual reality makes its way to the street.


“Just think about how it is now with people walking and texting all the time, and imagine how it could be if Facebook incorporates virtual reality and you’re seeing versions of your friends talking instead of just things they’ve typed on your page,” Bailenson says.

The potential negatives aside, researchers are optimistic that virtual reality could be a new technology that actually improves our connection to and behavior in the real world.

“Instead of kids being stuck in front of a video game or TV, I want to find ways to use technology in a good way, to change behavior in the physical world in a positive way,” Ahn says.