Virtual reality can make us nicer

There’s been quite a bit of debate about whether violent video games can make people more violent in real life — though no conclusive research. With the advent of virtual reality — immersive, interactive experiences in which users feel as though they are actually characters inside a different world — this debate is likely to become even more heated.

But it’s not enough to look at whether virtual reality can make people more violent — the opposite might also be true.

And, in fact, according to a new study from the University of Georgia, virtual reality experiences can actually make people nicer, and more empathetic.

The research, conducted by Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, an assistant professor of Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, studied the potential of the virtual reality technology to improve society by enhancing empathy and encouraging more considerate behaviours.

Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn. (Image courtesy Sun Joo Ahn.)

Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn. (Image courtesy Sun Joo Ahn.)

One of the studies aimed at fostering empathy with persons with disabilities and increasing favorable attitudes toward them. The participants of the study wore head goggles that allowed them to experience a three-dimensional virtual simulation of red-green colorblindness.

“Using virtual reality we are able to put you literally in the shoes of the person with a disability,” Ahn told Hypergrid Business. “So you can see the world through the eyes of a person with colorblindness.”

A vivid sensory rich experience provided by the virtual simulation resulted in the participants feeling significantly more sympathetic toward the color blind compared to those who merely imagined having this disability.

“I felt bad for the colorblind person,” said one participant of the experiment. “Certain situations can be really tough when you’re colorblind.”

The results of the study have shown that the sense of being another person transfers to the physical world and translates into actual helping behavior.

In fact, just a few minutes of the virtual reality experience was enough to motivate participants to invest significant amount of time and effort to help people with colorblindness.

“I felt like a colorblind person,” said another participant of the experiment. “I felt like I was in a whole different world. It made me realize how tough it is for them to do certain things in life, such as drive.”


The experimental setup. (Image courtesy Sun Joo Ahn.)

The experimental setup. (Image courtesy Sun Joo Ahn.)

The research conducted at Stanford university demonstrated the ability of the virtual reality technology to encourage prosocial behavior in the physical world. The participants of the study played a superhero-game, in which they flew around the city looking for a diabetic boy in need of medicine.

The results of the experiment indicated that having the ability to fly like a superhero does, in fact, lead to greater helping behavior in the real world after the virtual experience is over.

A participant in the virtual reality experiment. (Image courtesy Sun Joo Ahn.)

A participant in the virtual reality experiment. (Image courtesy Sun Joo Ahn.)

Applying virtual reality for encouraging perspective taking

According to Ahn, virtual reality technology could be used potentially for diversity trainings in different organizations.

“We could put the doctor in the shoes of the patient and change their perspectives, so maybe they could communicate with the patient a little bit better,” she said.

Virtual reality can improve mutual understanding, she said, and encourage successful collaboration between people of different cultures, genders, ethnicities. It may also be used for things like bullying, especially for young children and young adults.

“It’s potentially possible for us to build a virtual reality simulation where bullies could experience being a victim,” she said. “We could make bullies a little bit empathic towards the victim.”

The ability of the virtual reality to influence people’s perspectives can also qualitatively transform the way we appreciate the news.

If you simply read a war story, you may perceive large psychological distances between yourself and the war and feel that it’s not personally relevant to you, said Ahn. Virtual experience lets you feel what it’s like to be in the war zone or in the center of the problem, which is especially impactful for drawing attention of a global citizen to the world issues.

“The degree with which your story resonates with the audience is going to be really important to the future of journalism,” she said.

From health to education, art to government — virtual reality will increasingly make its presence felt and change the way we perceive things.

There are bound to exist presumptions among social scientists about negative effects virtual reality may cause. Just like games that depict violence, or the negative impact of the Internet and even TV back in the day.

“Every technology doesn’t really create something new, but it amplifies what we already have,” said Ahn. “People can be good or bad and technology makes it a little bit more impactful. I think it’s really important for scholars to study both sides and learn how virtual reality could help us live better lives.”


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Kate Abrosimova

Kate Abrosimova is a tech journalist employed with Yalantis, a mobile app development company. She covers mobile and Internet startups, innovative technology companies and products, freelancing and blogging. Follow her on Twitter @kateabrosimova.

3 Responses

  1.' Yichard says:

    It is well known in modern scientific psychology and in traditionnal spirituality as well, that we become what we visualise. The reason is quite simple, as neurology explains: when we use our neural circuits, they “learn” to do it better. This is how we can learn to pilot an aircraft in Microsoft Flight Simulator, and know to do it for real (if the simulation is realistic enough)
    So the same goes with anything: if we learn to kill in a video game, it will be easier to do it for real. That does not mean that all videogamers will start killing people in the street… but we all the same see some people joining video-game-like groups of gratuitous killers, like the daesh in Syria.
    Fortunately, this also works in the good way: we can meet people, share, empathise, and in a general way, have the experience of the immersion in a better world. This is what I am working for, since I started in the virtual in 2000: offering people the experience of the immersion in a world of beauty and nice emotions.
    This is why our little virtual bugs are not just a hobby or a game, and why I defend them against attempts to neutralise our worlds.

    As to the “numerous studies” as what virtual experiences have no effects, I allow myself to discard them in a single throw: don’t we also have “numerous studies” showing that contraceptives, electromagnetic waves, soy, aspartame, gluten, fiberglass, are all terrible poisons? It is so easy to write a scientific-looking paper with some biased statistics.

  2.' Adam Time says:

    Well I grew up watching the Road Runner. Tom And Jerry. Rat Patrol , Playing with GI Joe’s. If any one tells you that a shooter up game can connect to a person that goes to the limit of acquiring a weapon, Then planning how to kill some one is connected to a virtual game .
    Well that is something only a professor would do trying to get a grant.

    The truth is what you watch on TV and the internet is 100 times more violent than a person playing a shooter game.

    As a mater of fact these games have created students of today to sit back watch the world go by instead of actually getting out there and doing things. We are still in the longest war of all times. The so called 911 blunder.
    If it wasn’t for the actual disconnection of today’s youth you would see riots on campus when the first body bags came home.

    And now today video interface is part of training to kill. The moment that virtual game is actually connected to a real missile or a real weapon then it is not a game.

    Did we all forget in the 60’s when people taught that rock and roll was from Satan. and if you sing to the Beatles you are demonic worshipers. There will always be sociopaths. Tell me you never been so mad at someone you did not think in your mind a terrible thought. that is the difference thinking and doing.

    so growing up we are given toy weapon,to war figures,new of patriots giving there life to country, Better yet to give respect to a man with a gun oh he is wearing a badge. You watch one day of what they air on the internet and the news and it is 100 times more violent then trying to get a high score.
    Do the math do not spout crap.

  3.' lmpierce says:

    Interesting article and a fresh perspective…

    There is a lot of controversy over content in games and virtual worlds. It’s refreshing to consider the positive impact even as we debate the negative impact.

    I read an article by a psychologist that suggests a main reason young people (in particular) like violent games, (as violence is a theme of great intensity and forcefulness), is that young people often feel powerless in life in general, and these kinds of games give a feeling of power and mastery. If this is valid, it does not suggest that violent games necessarily lead to violence, but rather that they give a sense of empowerment. Any final steps towards outward violence are mediated by a number of other factors as well.

    This would also be good news for games and immersive environments of any kind, including those designed to provide therapeutic benefits, as it shows that these interventions have a real impact on the participant’s psyche. Furthermore, in the case of therapeutic aims, the transition from an internal benefit to an external improvement should be studied, since unlike the transition to violence from an internal impulse to an external action, therapeutic aims are considered unconditionally socially and personally desirable. By learning more about this conversion for positive outcomes, we may also learn more about how to recognize and redirect unwanted tendencies towards violence. A kind of research win-win.