Stanford University

Empathy at Scale

The following project seeks to design, test, and distribute virtual reality interventions that teach empathy. Virtual reality simulations allow learners to experience the life of someone else by “walking a mile” in his or her shoes. Through the capabilities of the technology, learners can see their appearance and behaviors reflected in a virtual mirror as someone who is different, and perceptually experience a scenario from the perspective of any party in a social interaction. Previous studies, including our own work using virtual reality to teach empathy toward those with disabilities, with different skin color, with different economic goals, and from different age groups have demonstrated varying effectiveness of virtual reality in teaching empathy, but those studies suffered from three shortcomings:

  • Small and homogeneous samples, typically upper-class college students near the age of twenty, limiting researchers’ abilities to draw conclusions across different cultures and communities;
  • Not longitudinal, most studies don’t follow subjects over time, so they can’t determine lasting effects of treatment; and
  • Limited range of empathy scenarios, so they cannot isolate the barriers that may preclude motivations to emphasize.

This project is collecting data from a large, demographically diverse sample—approximately 1000 participants—to test a wide range of empathy scenarios varying in domain (e.g., prejudice, bullying, classroom learning, etc.), and in motivational factors that encourage empathy (e.g., immersiveness of the simulation, emotional valence of treatment, strength of group affiliation). If successful, this project will also examine the effects of multiple virtual reality treatment sessions over six months.

Our academic partner in this work is Dr. Jamil Zaki, founding director of Stanford’s Social Neuroscience Laboratory. This project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Moreover, we are partnering with Sesame Workshop and others to extend our testing and distribute our empathy simulations.

PBS Newshour features our empathy research.


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