Mado, M., Herrera, F., Nowak, K., Bailenson, J.N. (2021). Effect of Virtual Reality Perspective-Taking on Related and Unrelated Contexts. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.0802
Virtual reality perspective-taking (VRPT) experiences effectively increase both empathy and prosocial behaviors toward related social targets (e.g., cutting down a tree in virtual reality increases concern for the environment). This project tests the prediction that empathy is analogous to a muscle that increases with practice and can transfer to unrelated contexts instead of being a mental state that increases only for a specific context or target. This study examines the extent to which VRPT experiences can train empathic skills that are applied to unrelated social targets and contexts. Two thirds of the participants engaged in VRPT experiences either showing what it is like to become homeless or how ocean acidification affects the marine environment. A third of the participants were in the control condition and did not complete a VRPT task. Results replicate previous findings showing that VRPT tasks increase related context empathy and prosocial behaviors; however, the results on VRPTs effect on empathy and prosocial behaviors for unrelated contexts were mixed. The VRPT ocean acidification task was more effective at inducing empathy for the homeless, an unrelated social target, than the control condition, but the empathy-transfer effect did not occur from the homeless context to the ocean context. Replicating previous work, participants who experienced what it is like to become homeless signed a petition supporting the homeless at significantly higher rates than participants in the control condition. These findings show that transfer of empathy from one context to another is possible, but this transfer does not occur for all contexts.