Can Empathy Grow in the Metaverse and Virtual Reality?

Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Part 2 in a series on empathy in the metaverse and virtual worlds.

Research illustrations that empathy can exist in virtual worlds like the metaverse and web 3.0, and virtual interactions often mirror those interactions in real life. As virtual worlds become more accessible to larger audiences, could metaverse and virtual reality activities be used to enhance empathy? Could the metaverse and virtual worlds promote social good?

Empathy has been referred to as a muscle that can be improved, strengthened, and cultivated through practice. In a 2015 TED talk, Virtual Reality (VR) Developer Chris MIlk called VR “the ultimate empathy machine.” Multiple VR companies have invested in programs to incentivize designers to create content for social good, including Oculus’s 2016 “VR for Good” initiative and the 2017 HTC VIVE “VR for Impact” program. Have such socially responsible VR programs have been able to encourage empathy?

A recent meta-analysis research paper and review of VR programs published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior suggests that certain virtual reality experiences can be effective at enhancing emotional empathy. Still, the ability to impact cognitive empathy needs more work.

What is the difference between these types of empathy? How can cognitive empathy be better targeted through VR programs? These distinctions are helpful to consider as VR designers develop experiences and virtual worlds like the metaverse.

The concept of multiple dimensions and types of empathy is a longstanding one. Adam Smith, in 1759 described two types of empathy: 1) an emotional reaction to others and 2) the ability to recognize the other person’s emotional state—this means not necessarily experiencing an emotional reaction to the other’s personal state.

Modern-day empathy theories propose that empathy comes from a “dual process” involving automatic unconscious and conscious processes.

Empathy is multidimensional. There are different types of empathy (the third is less commonly raised):

1. Emotional empathy or “affective empathy” is the ability to share another person’s feelings. This is considered an immediate automatic emotional response and is achieved through emotional connection.

“I can feel in my body what others are feeling.” (bottom-up processing)

2. Cognitive empathy or “perspective-taking empathy” is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. This type of empathy may be improved through “perspective-taking” exercises and better communication. To cultivate cognitive empathy, the participant has to put in more effort.

“I appreciate and get how others are feeling, but I don’t feel it.” (top-down processing)

3. Compassionate empathy or “empathic concern” is the third type of empathy that moves one to take action and help others suffering. Paul Ekman described this type of empathy as a subset of both cognitive and emotional empathy— a “narrower slice” of empathy focused on another person’s suffering. This type of empathy includes a wish to relieve others’ suffering and a willingness to take action.

“I feel and recognize the suffering of others and want to do something to relieve their suffering.”

Research has found that virtual reality experiences can be designed to promote social good and promote emotional empathy, including virtual experiences that show people how it is to become homeless, encounter racism, or be in a refugee camp. There are even virtual experiences to help one imagine being a cow in a slaughterhouse or transforming into a rainforest tree in an approaching fire.

But can these virtual experiences guide people to truly grasp the feelings, thoughts, and decisions of that situation? Can they inspire participants to change behavior and take action? What elements of virtual experiences are most likely to impact the types of empathy that are harder to reach (cognitive and compassionate)? These more challenging questions require a deeper investigation into empathy, an umbrella term for different psychological processes.

Emotional empathy or affective empathy is the product of the fight-or-flight response system through a neurobiological model of processing called “bottom-up processing” – in which one’s body gives the brain feedback information. Emotional empathy is a visceral response and feeling produced by, among other things, complex neurohormones released like adrenaline.

On the other hand, cognitive empathy is the complex product of “mentalizing,” or the act of putting oneself in others’ shoes and figuring out the thoughts and feelings of another person. This active “top-down processing” mode takes even more effort than emotional empathy and concentration since it draws upon more advanced resources of the mind. Distractions and being inundated with emotions can make cognitive empathy more difficult to access.

This means the design of virtual experiences and how it engages the user can result in varying amounts and types of empathy. Media scholar Marshall McLuhan coined “hot media” and “cold media.” “Hot media” is works that “spoonfeed” sensations to the user without requiring more active user engagement.

“Cold media” is works that require high participation from users. Cognitive empathy requires that the user experience be more like “cold media” and not just serve up sensations. In other words, virtual experiences that require the user to imagine, engage actively, and participate in a focused environment free from distraction are most likely to help the user develop cognitive empathy.

Some scholars and philosophers have said that trying to improve a user’s cognitive empathy is not only impossible but also unethical – because you can’t actually ever truly imagine other people’s subjective experience. However, this point is very much debated. Being able to better imagine oneself in someone else’s situation seems more feasible through virtual experiences and that one can do so while also acknowledging that one person can never truly grasp another person’s complex and unique perspective. There is a nuanced but key distinction between two types of cognitive empathy— the difference between “imagine-self” and “imagine-other” perspective taking:

There are two types of “perspective-taking” also known as “projective empathy” or “simulation”:

1. Imagine-other perspective-taking “being someone” To imagine the perspective of other subjects, grasping their thoughts, feelings, decisions, psychological traits.

2. Imagine-self perspective-taking “being in someone else’s shoes” – to imagine the thoughts, feelings, decisions, characteristics of how you would feel in the other’s circumstances.

These two types are projective empathy are neurologically and psychologically different. Imagine-other takes even more mental flexibility and the ability to set aside one’s immediate reactions, emotions, and feelings (“emotional regulation”).

Cultivating empathy through VR programs will continue to grow through the efforts of creative and interactive VR designers and the expansion of technological capabilities. These questions are worth pursuing and require precision and awareness of defining and encouraging empathy.

See Part 1: Can Empathy Exist In The Metaverse and Virtual Reality?

Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC Copyright © 2022

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