Research shows virtual reality can increase empathy

Other ways in which the metaverse will change your behaviour


Reality can be a real bummer. You have a hundred different problems to deal with in life, many of them simultaneously—from looming deadlines and societal expectations to cranky bosses and crankier exes. There is only one band-aid that can stem the flow of your disillusionment—escapism. For millennia, humans have been finding ways to escape reality, through books, movies, video games, virtual reality and now, through the metaverse. “People come to the Oasis because of all the things they can do. But they stay because of all the things they can be. They can be tall, beautiful, live-action, cartoon….,” says the protagonist, Wade, in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), about a dystopian world where people live inside a virtual simulation called the Oasis (much like what the metaverse could look like in future). “Best of all, in the Oasis, no one could tell that I was fat, that I had acne, or that I wore the same shabby clothes every week, bullies could not pelt me with spitballs, give me atomic wedgies, or pummel me by the bike rack after school. No one could even touch me. In here, I was safe.”

In the metaverse where anything is possible­—you can peer inside cells, go whale watching in the Pacific, swing planets into the universe­—the repercussions on our behaviour might be explosive.

Before you dismiss the Oasis as just a piece of sci-fi fabricated from someone’s hyperactive imagination, think of all the inventions that have actually been inspired by sci-fi—from the pacemaker, believed to have taken off from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, to self-driving cars, which were first popularised by the Knight Rider series in 1982. And if the Oasis is a precursor to what the metaverse could become, then “atomic wedgies”, whatever they are, could be the least of our worries. There are bigger questions to consider: “Who is going to regulate the metaverse? How bad is the governmental or corporate surveillance going to be? Will the metaverse change our behaviour? Will we really be us in it?

Scientists, sociologists, researchers and technocrats have wrestled with these questions for long. To demonstrate the power of an immersive technology like virtual reality to change our behaviour, the researcher Mel Slater conducted an experiment where subjects were asked to give a shock to a digital representation of a person every time that person incorrectly answered a question. (This was Slater’s spin on the famous Stanley Milgram experiment of the 1960s to understand why people approved and even actively took part in Nazi atrocities.) For each wrong answer, the voltage would be increased incrementally. Even after the subjects knew that they were shocking a computer programme, their physiological responses (sweating, biting their lips, groaning) were as though they were shocking a real person. “What to make of this strange result?” asks Jeremy Bailenson in his 2018 book on virtual reality, Experience on Demand. “When we consider that the subjects were made uncomfortable by the idea of administering fake electric shocks, what can we expect people will feel when they are engaging in all sorts of fantasy violence and mayhem in virtual reality?”

Furthermore, Bailenson describes what is known as the ‘Proteus Effect’: When one wears an avatar, he implicitly becomes like that avatar. People in taller avatars negotiate more aggressively, people in attractive avatars speak more socially and people in older avatars care more about the distant future, he says. “Our research shows that you can indeed embody someone different from yourself in virtual reality and experience something from their perspective,” Bailenson tells THE WEEK. “We have conducted several research studies that have shown that VR can increase empathy and prosocial behaviour. As technology evolves, the simulations will only become more convincing.”

In the metaverse where anything is possible—you can peer inside cells, go whale watching in the Pacific, get ringside tickets to the greatest sporting events, swing planets into the universe, play paintball on the clouds, become a dog or an axe-murderer—the repercussions on our behaviour might be explosive. The mingling of real and digital in powerfully potent ways could lead to chaos. How will the real co-exist in a world where everyone has several alter egos? How do we use the metaverse responsibly so that it only heightens the pleasures of the real world without eclipsing it completely?

To answer that, one needs to address the elephant in the metaverse: Mark Zuckerberg’s fashion sense. Last October, when Zuckerberg introduced the rebranding of Facebook as Meta, he took us through a fascinating virtual tour of all that one could do in the metaverse—from experiential art to space travel. Yet, he did this in his trademark black jeans, white sneakers and navy T-shirt. “Really Zuck, you could have worn ANYTHING, and you chose this?” tweeted a disgruntled user, voicing the disappointment of dozens of Meta watchers out there. He could have worn fur, gold or metal. He could have gone for zombie gore or bohemian chic. Oh, the infinite possibilities…. Yet, he decided to dress as himself.

Thus, inadvertently, he underscored an important principle of the metaverse. It works best when you use it to do the things you cannot do, not the things you can do differently. Use it to go on an epic adventure with the Avengers or to watch the world unfolding from the top of the Grand Canyon, not to change the way you dress in the real world, or what you eat for breakfast. What Bailenson says about virtual reality can be applicable to the metaverse as well: “If an experience is not impossible, dangerous, expensive or counterproductive, then you should seriously consider using a different medium—or even do it in the real world. Save VR for the special moments.” Reality is not such a bad place to be in, after all. As it says in Ready Player One, it is the only place where you can get a decent meal.