Can VR Increase Empathy?

For some of society’s most complex problems, like solving poverty or civil rights issues, the sides attempting to solve them are so far apart that nothing constructive can be accomplished. Is there a way to close the gap?

This week has been yet another horrible week in the US.  Within the span of a week we have had two mass shootings which have made news.  This kind of news is always hard to hear (especially since it’s getting to be more of the norm than the exception in the United States), but around the holidays it is even worse.  The reaction to both of these events has been raging across the internet, with hashtags like #GodIsntFixingThis trending yesterday as frustrated Americans pointed out the hypocrisy of political leaders who offer thoughts and prayers for the victims of yet another massacre while doing nothing in order to look into why this keeps happening or to try and prevent it from happening again.  I personally don’t think it’s particularly helpful to shame one side of the debate in an environment which is already fractured so badly that nothing can get done, but I can understand the frustration which prompted it.

Building bridges in situations like these are likely to be far more helpful, and one of the best way to build bridges between two warring factions on any issue is to attempt to prompt either sympathy or empathy for the parties on the other side.  It goes beyond simply seeing things from another point of view…it’s the sympathy or empathy for the opposing viewpoint which creates the base to build the bridge on.  In the same way that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness (as Mark Twain pointed out), having sympathy or empathy for the other side in a debate is necessary for building cohesion, compromise and acceptance.

But how does one go about increasing empathy or sympathy?  For some of society’s most complex problems, like solving poverty or civil rights issues, the sides attempting to solve them are so far apart that nothing constructive can be accomplished.  Is there a way to close the gap?  There may be a new tool on the horizon, which when used appropriately, could help even the most intractable people in a debate begin to feel what others are experiencing, and thus cultivate sympathy and/or empathy.

In May 2015, Nonny de la Pena gave a TED Talk about a new form of journalism which she created using Virtual Reality Technology.  It started out with a desire to communicate what it’s like to be poor in the United States, and culminated in a VR experience which showed a food bank being flooded with hungry people.  You can hear and see the person in charge exclaiming that there isn’t enough food for everyone in the line who needs it.  Then, you see a man fall to the floor in what appears to be a seizure; the man was diabetic and has gone into a low blood sugar coma from lack of food.  When you watch this event through VR Technology, it becomes an experience rather than an easily dismissible story that might be buried in a local paper you don’t read anymore.  I challenge anyone to experience something like that and not come away from it changed.

Of course there are issues that would need to be addressed were this to become the norm.  Issues of privacy for the people involved.  Editorial issues as far as what would be shown and what wouldn’t.  For some people, viewing a particularly horrific event might trigger things like PTSD simply from viewing it.    But for some of our society’s complex and intractable problems  I think this could be a very effective tool to help get all sides of the issue on a more solid footing to begin building a consensus.

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