Virtual Reality (VR) has been touted as a simple intervention to increase empathy. VR replaces our own sensory environment with a new perspective, not only allowing us to walk in another’s shoes, but climb inside their skin. In this way, VR may help people to empathize with others in circumstances they find it difficult to imagine. We present data from a preregistered meta-analysis that indicates that, overall, virtual reality has a significant positive impact on empathy. However, the dispersion of effects exceeded that which would be expected by random variation. Subgroup analyses revealed that auditory simulations and head-mounted simulations both significantly improved empathy whereas desktop VR did not. VR significantly improved affective empathy but not cognitive empathy and improved empathy for healthy adult and clinical populations, but not for children. VR was found to be more effective at increasing empathy than no treatment and perspective-taking instructions but was not significantly more effective when compared to reading about others or witnessing them in real life. On the basis of this meta-analysis, we conclude that VR experiences can increase empathy. These findings support the use of VR in a variety of situations and with a variety of populations. However, these results also suggest several important boundary conditions to this effect. We hope this meta-analysis and initial evidence of crucial boundary conditions will help charities and businesses considering using VR make informed choices and will assist VR developers to further refine this technology to ensure that it maximizes its prosocial potential.
Empathy, Virtual Reality, Meta-analysis
Technologies in Society
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session
Alison Jane Martingano
Lab Manager, Psychology, The New School for Social Research, United States
Associate Professor, Indiana University, United States
PhD Candidate, Stanford University, United States