Stanford University

Virtual reality perspective-taking increases cognitive empathy for specific others

van Loon, A., Bailenson, J.N., Zaki, J., Bostick, J. & Willer, R. (2018) Virtual reality perspective-taking increases cognitive empathy for specific others. PLoS ONE 13(8):e0202442. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0202442

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Previous research shows that virtual reality perspective-taking experiences (VRPT) can increase prosocial behavior toward others. We extend this research by exploring whether this effect of VRPT is driven by increased empathy and whether the effect extends to ostensibly real-stakes behavioral games. In a pre-registered laboratory experiment (N = 180), participants interacted with an ostensible partner (a student from the same university as them) on a series of real-stakes economic games after (a) taking the perspective of the partner in a virtual reality, "day-in-the-life" simulation, (b) taking the perspective of a different person in a "day-in-the-life" simulation, or (c) doing a neutral activity in a virtual environment. The VRPT experience successfully increased participants' subsequent propensity to take the perspective of their partner (a facet of empathy), but only if the partner was the same person whose perspective participants assumed in the virtual reality simulation. Further, this effect of VRPT on perspective-taking was moderated by participants' reported feeling of immersion in the virtual environment. However, we found no effects of VRPT experience on behavior in the economic games.

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