Still from a virtual reality film that shows parents what it’s like to be abused and neglected as a child. Courtesy The Cornerstone Partnership

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The Limits of Empathy

Thanks to recent efforts in the virtual reality space, audiences can get up close and personal to folks living very different, and difficult, lives. But can attempts to foster empathy through simulation hurt more than they can help?

Scientist Oliver Lodge, 1934. Austrian Archives/Imagno/Getty Images

On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell became the first person to transmit clear speech over telephone wires. “Mr. Watson, come here–I want to see you,” he shouted into his mouthpiece, and from the other room, his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, came running. Just about twenty years later, a physicist named Oliver Lodge proved that radio waves existed and could be transmitted through the air with no wires at all. A year after that, a German physicist named Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays. A year after that, Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity.

Technology was growing by leaps and bounds in all sorts of sectors, and for all sorts of purposes, but inventors focused on that most human of endeavors, interpersonal connection, weren’t just interested in the sharing of voices or words—they were also interested in the transmission of thoughts. Specifically, telepathy machines: machines that could detect and decipher thoughts out of thin air. Alexander Graham Bell, of course, was involved, and some historians believe that he invented the telephone in part to try to contact his dead relatives. (Thomas A. Watson, for his part, was not just Graham Bell’s assistant, he was also a psychic medium who spent much of his time listening to the crackling of telephone wires for messages from the dead.) Oliver Lodge, the man who discovered radio waves, did so nearly by accident: the reason he set out to understand how invisible waves can be transmitted through thin air is because he was trying to crack telepathy.


Inventor Hugo Gernsback, with his television eyeglasses, or “teleyeglasses,” an early pair of 3D virtual reality glasses. Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Today, in an era of self-driving cars, far-reaching space probes and high-powered, pocket-sized computers, the technologists interested in communication and connection aren’t trying to crack telepathy, but something similar: empathy. Their tool? Virtual reality, a burgeoning field that traces its history all the way back to flight simulators for pilots in the late 1920’s. (In the 1950’s, filmmaker Morton Heilig developed something he called the Sensoroama—a machine that looks like a cross between an arcade game and an ophthalmological device. Users sat down in a chair equipped with motors, and put their head into the opening, where they saw a movie projected onto a stereoscopic 3D display.) The name “virtual reality” wasn’t coined until 1987, when artist and inventor Jaron Lanier left his job at Atari to found a company focused on selling 3D movie headsets to consumers, and it’s been both a buzzword and a darling of technologists ever since. Today, virtual reality devices are big business. In 2014, Facebook bought the VR device company Oculus Rift for $2 billion. That same year, Google developed Google Cardboard, a cheap headset that users can slide their phone into to view movies in 3D; two years later, the company announced an entire VR development platform called Daydream. According to market research company Grand View Research, the VR gaming industry alone is projected to be worth $45 billion by 2025.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a virtual tour of storm-ravaged Puerto Rico to demonstrate the capabilities of the platform. Screengrab from Facebook

Proponents of virtual reality tout it for its potential to upend how we experience stories—and ourselves—by putting us directly in the shoes of others to make us feel what they are feeling. Virtual reality goggles don’t just offer a cool factor, an opportunity to interact with a video in three-dimensions, but a wow factor: the experience of something far deeper than passively watching a film. (“One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy,” Mark Zuckerberg said in his apology for “visiting” Puerto Rico in VR in October of last year.) In his 2015 TED Talk entitled “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine,” documentary filmmaker Chris Milk described a virtual reality headset thusly: “It's a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human.” In other words: We don’t need to read someone else’s mind, we can do one better: become them.


A still from “After Solitary,” a virtual reality project that tells the story of a 39-year-old inmate who had been previously held in solitary confinement. Courtesy of Emblematic Group

The word “telepathy” comes from a mashup of Greek terms: tele-pathos, “touch at a distance.” But “pathos” doesn’t just mean touch, it also means “suffering" or "experience.” And what are virtual reality empathy experiences other than suffering at a distance? The men who first coined the word telepathy wouldn’t have made a distinction between “touch” and “empathy.” To them, those who were telepathic were empaths, deeply connected to the internal states of others. Today, empathy is a buzzword, trendy enough that there are plenty of takes (and even an entire book) that make arguments against it. Time magazine called empathy “the hottest trend in leadership,” and a lack of empathy has been called “the root of all evil.” And now, the VR trend and the empathy trend have collided, to produce a flurry of VR-based empathy experiences.

A new virtual reality film created by a non-profit called The Cornerstone Partnership aims to show parents what it’s like to be abused and neglected as a child. The 5-minute VR film puts the viewer in the shoes of a two-year-old in an abusive home—the film features a father cursing, yelling, kicking a trash can, and leaning into the camera menacingly. The hope is that Cornerstone’s film will allow adoptive or foster parents to better understand and connect with kids who come from abusive homes if they know what those experiences are actually like. Another VR experience, created by a journalist named Nonny de la Peña in 2010, puts people in the shoes of a man named Baha Mousa, an Iraqi civilian who died in British custody in 2003 after being imprisoned in stress positions. Other contemporary VR experiences allow audiences to get in line at a food bank in Los Angeles, and watch as a man passes out on the sidewalk. Or embody a prisoner in Guantanamo. Or swap bodies with someone to foster “cross gender” empathy. In a 2016 virtual reality film called Across the Line, produced in partnership with Planned Parenthood, viewers are placed in the shoes of a pregnant woman harassed and attacked by anti-abortion activists. Virtual reality allows viewers to experience homelessness, the refugee crisis, disability, pregnancy, old age. Strap into a pair of goggles, fire up a traumatic on-demand experience, and feel your connection to affected but distant strangers surge.

Still from a virtual reality project where Rikke Frances Wahl (left) swapped bodies with her male partner using this technology. Courtesy of BeAnotherLab

The loudest, most passionate advocates assert that VR experiences can impact attitudes towards everything from climate change to world peace. Writers at Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think tank focused on predicting and solving future problems, claim that “once you’ve experienced a situation in VR, you no longer see casualty figures from war or climate change refugees as just numbers in the news but as real human beings with the same right to life as the people around you.” One journalist covering The Machine to Be Another, a body-swapping VR experience, summed up its goals like this: “If you could better understand each other, could you better understand yourself? If you could see the world through the eyes of the other, couldn't we make a better world to live in?”

Teachers are already using VR experiences in their classrooms too, to teach kids about empathy. “Every student was completely absorbed and mesmerized. The only sound was of hearts and minds slowly opening,” wrote Rachel Mark of one 6th grade class in Vermont that viewed a New York Times VR documentary called The Displaced, about Syrian refugees.


360-degree video still of a structure lived in by the homeless in Kyiv, Ukraine. Getty Images

There’s no arguing whether these experiences are affecting. (Actually, they’re more than affecting: They’re often overwhelming and distressing and downright exhausting.) I’ve “experienced” homelessness and the Syrian refugee crisis in virtual reality, and by the end of each one, the last thing I wanted to do was keep chatting with colleagues at a tech conference. A journalist at The Verge who experienced a body-swapping VR setup wrote, “For brief moments, I truly forgot who I was, where I was, and what was happening.” In one TechCrunch review of VR films, the writer went through an experience called “Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party,” which put him and a new virtual friend in a room at a party with a woman named Gina who is passed out drunk. The friend then suggests that they have sex with her. (The scene gets more horrific from there, though the screen goes dark to prevent viewers from seeing the worst of it.) The TechCrunch writer described his feelings about the film this way: “The disgust and guilt are overwhelming. I winced, stomach churning as my character gruffly pulled off her boots. My cringing face relaxed only slightly when the scene went dark as it gets too graphic.” He sums up the experience like this: “The empathy machine works.”

Documentarian Chris Milk might say that this sort of suffering is the point. “It's a very experiential medium,” he says in his TED Talk. “You feel your way inside of it. It's a machine, but inside of it, it feels like real life, it feels like truth. And you feel present in the world that you're inside and you feel present with the people that you're inside of it with.” Milk goes on to say that this is how he believes VR empathy experiences will change the world.


A man tries out a virtual reality game inside a 360-degree projection dome on the opening day of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) at the Los Angeles Convention Center, June 13, 2017. David McNew/Getty Images

Let’s fast forward to that changed world, shall we? It’s 2030, and virtual reality has gotten really, really good. There are companies all over the world who’ve invested in the incredible promise of a technology that can connect us all. In this future, VR isn’t just a cool gadget, it’s a key safeguard, a technology that protects us from our worst selves.

In this world, major life milestones and civic processes must be subjected to empathy tests within VR experiences. Expectant parents are required to enroll in VR classes to let them really feel what carrying a baby to term is all about. Anyone adopting a dog is made to sit and watch a mandatory VR film about animal abuse. At every job, sexual harassment training is replaced by a sexual harassment VR experience, putting us in the shoes of a young employee being leered at and groped by an older executive. Those of us who aim to be teachers and camp counselors are required to take VR training on what it feels like to be bullied. Our politicians are required to experience what it’s like to live as a refugee or an immigrant before they’re allowed to pass laws impacting either. Our soldiers must take on the perspectives of their opponents. Our doctors have to put on goggles to understand chronic pain or psychiatric disorders before treating patients. Jurors must experience the victim and the accused’s accounts of the events that took place the night of a particular crime.


Participants in a University of Barcelona study on race relations track body movements using a motion-capture suit and project these movements into a virtual mirror displayed in goggles worn by participants. Courtesy of Mel Slater

You’ve probably heard some variation on the idea that before you judge another person, you must walk a mile in his or her shoes. (The phrase “walk a mile in another man’s shoes” comes from a similar construction, “walk a mile in another man’s moccasins,” and is often attributed to various Native American tribes. But it actually comes from an 1895 poem by a woman named Mary T. Lathrap called “Judge Softly.”)

As it turns out, there are a couple of different kinds of empathy, and the “walk a mile in your shoes” type is the one that most researchers, social workers, and nurses actually warn against.

People who study empathy have a thousand different terms and semantic distinctions when it comes to what empathy is and what forms it can take. “There are nearly as many definitions of empathy as there are scientists who study this phenomenon,” writes Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki. But most people agree that there is a distinction between empathy in the form of listening, and trying to understand someone’s experience—what many researchers call “empathic concern”—and empathy that takes the form of actually trying to take that experience on yourself—something called “personal distress.”

No surprise here, but most researchers agree that empathic concern is good, and personal distress is bad. “When people think about others from a third person perspective, they experience empathy, empathic concern, and they want to help people. And that’s the goal,” says Adam Waytz, a psychologist at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. “Where people actually take on the pain of another person, that doesn’t lead to helping, it leads to disengagement, it’s this ‘ouch’ experience.” And this second thing, this personal distress, is often what empathetic VR experiences aim to achieve. “Often times these VR experiences are guiding people towards first-person perspective taking, where they’re not just considering what an abused child or a person with a disability feels, the VR experience is asking them to take on that pain,” Waytz says.


A family drinks tea inside their tent at the Idomeni refugee camp on the Greece-Macedonia border on March 16, 2016. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Virtual reality empathy evangelists trade on two main ideas. The first is that the absolute best way to foster empathy is by actually living and experiencing what another person has lived and experienced. “When you look down, you're sitting on the same ground that she's sitting on. And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathize with her in a deeper way,” Chris Milk said in his TED Talk. The second is that empathy is the secret weapon against the hate and conflict in the world. If we could all feel each other’s pain, the world would be a better place.

There is some evidence that some of those things might be true. Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and author of the forthcoming book Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do, has built his career studying the ways that VR can change minds. In his work, he has found that people who embody an animal feel more connected to nature. Those who meet their future, older selves in VR put more money away for retirement. And kids who meet virtual old people become less ageist.

But the human experience is a fragile and knotty one: the human brain loves to twist our best-laid plans back at us in the worst ways, and studies also show that these sorts of experiences can quickly backfire. Bailenson has also found that women who embody a sexily dressed avatar are more likely to internalize rape culture, and later, more likely to agree with statements like ‘‘In the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation.’’ Research also shows that empathy for a virtual reality avatar decreases drastically if the avatar depicts someone of a different race. This diminished empathy is even worse when the subject is made to feel anxious while they’re also supposed to be feeling empathetic. But it’s precisely this anxiety that the VR empathy experiences are designed to replicate.


Still from a virtual reality film that shows parents what it’s like to be abused and neglected as a child. Courtesy The Cornerstone Partnership

All of this is to say that well-meaning VR empathy experiences might come with some hidden costs. One study shows that people who have experienced something themselves can, in some cases, have less sympathy for those who are currently struggling with that same issue. This same study found that, for example, someone who had been bullied in the past was actually less empathetic towards a child being bullied than those who hadn’t been targeted before. Psychology researchers think that perhaps those who have managed to endure an experience might see someone in the midst of it and essentially think: “I went through this, it wasn’t so bad, they should just suck it up.” If that theory is correct, then those of us who go through an experience in VR might actually wind up feeling less compassion for people in real-world situations. It wasn’t so bad when we went through it virtually, we might think, so why is this person complaining?

This work also raises questions about another way this kind of empathy on demand might backfire. If we can (and in some cases, are required to) experience someone else’s worst day, might we come to believe we deserve access to everybody’s experiences before we bestow legitimacy on them? Bailenson has already written about the potential use of VR in jury trials. “VR technology can be designed for use in the courtroom, to recreate crime scenes, impeach the testimony of unreliable witnesses, test assertions, and enhance a jury‘s understanding of disputed events in computer-based simulated environments,” he writes in the Marquette Law Review. Jurors could then decide for themselves whether the victim was truly in danger, should have been that scared, or could have done something to mitigate the situation.


The Sensorama machine, an early virtual reality headset. via Wikimedia Commons

The past can prove instructive with regards to navigating the pitfalls of the coming VR revolution. Long before virtual reality films like Across the Line and The Party were offering opportunities for people to step into someone else’s body. The most common versions of these simulations were done by researchers and community organizers hoping to help able-bodied people better understand the lives of disabled people. Put on a blindfold, tie a hand behind your back, use a wheelchair; all these physical experiences could be simulated for people without the need for a fancy headset or 3D animation.

These simulations demonstrate both the power and potential peril of such efforts. What studies on these kinds of experiences have found is that after, say, putting on a blindfold and navigating a room without sight, people do feel more warmly towards blind people. They feel more empathetic towards them. But they also develop negative stereotypes to go along with this warm feeling. In one study, published in 2014 in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, participants who were asked to step into the shoes of a blind person by putting on a blindfold came out of the experiment with the belief that blind people are incapable of holding jobs or living alone, and that their lives are defined by misery. The subjects are so focused on their own struggles with trying to navigate that they assume that every blind person spends his or her days wallowing in this same state of frustration and confusion.

The authors of the 2014 study concluded that such negative stereotypes outweighed any kind of empathic warmth that the simulation might have also generated. Blind people don’t need warmth, they need people to respect them as fully functional individuals. What is far more effective at actually building respect and understanding for disabled people is face-to-face conversations with them. As Robert Yang, a video game designer, put it in a scathing 2017 critique of VR empathy experiences, “If you won’t believe someone’s pain unless they wrap an expensive 360 video around you, then perhaps you don’t actually care about their pain.”


A still from Sit Down Stand Up, a project by Nonny de la Peña, that used virtual reality to give participants the sense that they were imprisoned in stress positions. Courtesy of Emblematic Group

None of this is to argue that virtual reality cannot foster empathy, cannot be a great tool in the arsenal, cannot make people better understand one another. And some of the most affecting experiences like this aren’t actually virtual reality at all—at least not in the traditional sense of building a new virtual environment where there wasn’t one before. Instead, they’re documentaries, shot with a 360-degree camera. Take the film Clouds Over Sidra, an eight-minute documentary produced by Chris Milk in partnership with the United Stations. Put on a headset, and viewers are transported to the Za’atari refugee camp in Northern Jordan, where we focus our attentions on Sidra, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in the camp alongside 130,000 Syrians fleeing violence.

In Clouds Over Sidra, we meet our main character, we don’t become her. We also meet her family and her brothers, who make bread and tease each other. We see kids playing in the dust. We watch a classroom full of girls raising their hands in unison because they know the teacher likes to pick on students who don’t raise their hands. “So everybody raises their hands, even if they don’t know the answer,” Sidra explains. The people we’re watching are fully rounded human beings with lives and aspirations. They even smile. (It can be hard to find a smile in some of these VR experiences.)

These are the kinds of empathy in VR situations that Waytz thinks are the most valuable. Rather than asking people to assume personal distress, to be whipped and beaten themselves, they allow viewers to play the role of observer, and see what life is really like for people they may never meet. (Some have critiqued Clouds over Sidra for depoliticizing the Syrian crisis—the film never explains why any of what we’re seeing is happening, or who is doing what.) Waytz says he’d love to see VR empathy films focus on what are essentially boring experiences, like a day in a blind person’s life. “Oh they go to the grocery store just like you, they cook dinner for themselves just like you, they’re on Facebook just like you, they’re just kind of doing all the stuff that you would do,” he explains.


A fair worker presents VR glasses at the IFA Consumer Electronics Fair in Berlin on August 31, 2017. Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

One of Philip K. Dick’s lesser known stories, 1990’s “The Little Black Box,” concerns a machine that can deliver empathy much like today’s virtual reality devices claim. "This is the empathy box, my dear,” a character explains, “when you take hold of these handles you're no longer watching Wilbur Mercer. You're actually participating in his apotheosis. Why, you're feeling what he feels." In Dick’s most famous story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (which later became the movie Blade Runner) the writer references these boxes again. “An empathy box… is the most personal possession you have. It's an extension of your body; it's the way you touch other humans, it's the way you stop being alone.”

It’s striking that these empathy experiences are, in part, meant to stop us from feeling alone because the actual act of engaging in such simulations can be incredibly lonely. We put on a pair of goggles that transport us to a generated world where we step into the body of another human. We never speak to that human, we simply become them. We can’t ask them questions about their favorite hobbies or foods, or what the best route to the grocery store is. We are alone, inside of them, at the mercy of whatever piece of their life the VR designer wants to show us. We’re harassed, beaten, yelled at, chased, hungry, scared, alone. In most of these, nobody helps us. We always seem to be alone, if not literally, then certainly figuratively. Alone facing the world. Wearing goggles.

Some VR designers and early adopters are aware that they’re playing with fire. In 2016, the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California looked into creating VR films to help viewers understand the horrors of the Holocaust, sending a 15-person film crew to Auschwitz and Majdanek to gather footage, including scenes in which viewers could enter a gas chamber. “We don’t actually know whether it’s this empathy machine or whether, if you have an immersive experience, you traumatize your users,” Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation, told The Washington Post. (The Shoah Foundation films screened at a number of film festivals in 2017.) Even Jeremy Bailenson, whose scientific career has largely been based on studying the positive and negative impacts of VR, admits that it’s a medium that lives on a knife edge. “When I think about virtual reality, I think virtual reality is like uranium: It's this really powerful thing. It can heat homes and it can destroy nations. And it's all about how we use it,” he told CNN. In short: we know that VR experiences can, and will, change us. The question is whether they’ll change us for the better.

People use Samsung Gear VR during the presentation of the new Samsung Galaxy S7 and Samsung Galaxy S7 edge on February 21, 2016, in Barcelona, Spain. David Ramos/Getty Images

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