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Maybe it’s time to stop trying to make empathy in VR work

VR homelessness
Maybe it’s time to stop trying to make empathy in VR work

Researchers at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab want to create “empathy at scale,” so naturally they’ve turned to virtual reality as their tool of choice.

Their latest experiment involves placing study participants in a variety of situations designed to encourage understanding of the plight of homeless people. Some of these scenarios involve virtual reality recreations of homelessness (i.e. living in a car) and others involve more traditional fact patterns (i.e. reading words).

Here is what one participant had to say about that latter option when interviewed by The Stanford Daily:

“I did not feel much empathy,” he said, “I am already familiar with the subject [homelessness], and reading a packet of statistics isn’t any different from reading an article.”

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empathy is not a purely technological problem

Look, the obvious reaction to that quote is to note that the participant in question—mercifully anonymized—is a know-it-all and an asshole. And he probably is! But it’s worth recognizing that this is the problem that campaigners for all sorts of good causes run up against; lots of reasonably well-off people think they know what they need to know and the world is sad and that’s about it. Yes, only a spoiled toddler would be angry that people trying to raise empathy for the homeless wouldn’t let them use a fancy VR bauble in a randomized trial, but most political progress involves persuading spoiled toddlers, so …

VR homelessness

But let’s not get too excited about the VR part of the trial, either. Here, for your viewing pleasure, is a quote from a participant who got to put on a fancy headset:

“It was a very immersive experience,” she said. “I felt helpless and despaired when I was living in a car. I really did not know how to organize it, and everything was crumpled.”

Is that a sign of learning about homelessness or a piece of bog-standard tech journalism? The person learned something, so that’s good. But the question I always return to with virtual reality and empathy is if you need to see a situation through the eyes of the person living it in order to be empathetic, are you really an empathetic person?

It’s far from clear that this model of precise empathy can be expanded beyond small-scale experiments. To build an empathetic society in such a manner would require more time with a headset on than your average lifespan. Empathy requires the ability to generalize from experiences, because you can’t see them all. Hopefully VR helps in that regard, but empathy is not a purely technological problem and the language of technology may be poorly suited for discussing empathy.

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