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Virtual reality can increase empathy

Published on 30.7.2020
Tampere Universities
Bujic Mila
Photo: Jonne Renvall
Games represent only a fraction of the opportunities offered by virtual reality. Virtual applications can, for example, aid in the rehabilitation of the physically disabled or help us to identify with the experiences of minorities.

Green scenery fills the middle of the picture, but there are protesters on the right and a sea on the left. A male voice is explaining how the war in Syria has escalated. He wants to take his child to a safe place.

This is not a documentary but Sea Prayer, an immersive story by The Guardian newspaper that tells the tale of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned in 2015. Author Khaled Hosseini wrote the story.

Such immersive stories draw people powerfully into life-like environments. In Sea Prayer (you transfer to a new page), spectators can move the view 360° in every direction. They feel they are not watching a video; rather, they are absorbed in the events.

More impressive than reading?  

The emotionally charged story of Sea Prayer is naturally impressive when read.

“However, in a study conducted by the Gamification Group at Tampere University, just reading the online news article did not affect the readers’ human rights attitudes and emotions as much as watching the 360° video in mobile VR,” says Doctoral Researcher Mila Bujić.

In the study, one group read the online story of Sea Prayer and two groups watched it. One of the latter groups watched the two-dimensional version and the other the 360° virtual version. The virtual version had a stronger impact on the viewers’ human rights attitudes than the 2D version, and both video versions were more effective than the written story.

Many still assume that text is the most efficient form of expression. People are thought to work actively while reading because they must imagine the things told in the text. However, this study suggests that virtual reality can sometimes have a stronger effect on our emotions and attitudes than reading.

“This could naturally also be explained by the novelty effect. The results might be different after people have become more familiar with VR technology,” Bujić points out.

The Gamification Group is starting a new project where VR is used as a tool to increase emotional intelligence and group work skills in organisations.

Virtual reality may also expand human experiences. By using it we could get better at understanding and empathising with the lives of different groups and minorities, as well as developing our emotional intelligence and teamwork skills.

Relief from pain and anxiety

Creating immersive virtual reality used to be very expensive and the applications were mainly utilised to train the personnel of large organisations. For example, pilots and surgeons may practice their skills with simulators.

Virtual content is also starting to become available to consumers. The Guardian, The New York Times and other newspapers have entire departments working on immersive journalism. Virtual technology is also used in health care. For example, children’s hospitals have used VR to ease the pain of young patients by providing entry to a virtual home environment where parents read them a bedtime story. This has been found to ease pain.

Bujić also talks about a phenomenon called the body transfer illusion. It was discovered nearly twenty years ago in a study where the participants were told to put their left hand behind their back while a genuine-looking rubber hand was placed in front of them. When the hidden left hand and the rubber hand were touched in the same way at the same time, the participants started to feel that the rubber hand was their own.

Advanced VR technology can now expand the application possibilities of this illusion. The technology may be useful, for example, in the rehabilitation of people with reduced mobility. Bujić believes that in the future, virtual reality will also be used increasingly more in the treatment of body image and eating disorders, autism, stage fright, and phobias, as well as in studies on psychological phenomena.

“Virtual reality may also expand human experiences. By using it we could get better at understanding and empathising with the lives of different groups and minorities, as well as developing our emotional intelligence and teamwork skills,” Bujić says.



Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated experience where a realistic environment is created with a computer simulation.

In augmented reality (AR), objects made with computer graphics are brought to real-world environments.

In VR immersion, people are absorbed in fictional reality and believe that they are a part of it.

Author: Janica Brander