VR systems may make us more present and compassionate than traditional screens

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VR can make even a painful experience feel more real than watching it in regular 2D. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Researchers have found that participants who watched a person recall a painful experience through a virtual reality headset showed greater facial synchrony and social presence than people who viewed the monologue on a traditional screen, furthering the case that VR may bolster compassion. 

Meanwhile, and as detailed in the new study, which was carried out by Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya researchers and published April 12 in Computers in Human Behavior, VR users' emotional responses were similar to those of their two-dimensional video-viewing counterparts. Together, the findings suggest that VR is as successful as conventional video at initiating emotional and empathic responses in viewers but slightly better at inducing more complex physiological signals related to compassion and motivation.

The amorphous nature of compassion, or empathic care — a feeling of deep connection with others associated with the wish to relieve their suffering — created a design challenge in and of itself, as the researchers tried to pin down physiological changes corresponding to that psychological state on a second-by-second basis. "You want to create an emotional or social episode, which will be on the one hand, super realistic to participants," Yulia Golland, a senior lecturer at IDC Herzliya and the corresponding author on the paper, told The Academic Times. "But on the other hand, you [need to] repeat it over and over again for each and every participant in a similar way. So this is kind of contradictory."

To address these inherent challenges, the research was conducted in a specially designed lab that is capable of tracking psychological signals in a continuous manner. In traditional settings, physiological markers can only be monitored at certain points throughout a particular experiment, revealing only a small fraction of a person's emotional experience.

In the team's experiment, 70 female viewers watched a six-minute monologue of a woman sharing a painful story. 37 participants watched the story with a traditional 2D computer screen while 33 participants experienced the monologue with a VR headset. No matter which regions of the face the woman used to express herself, VR viewers tended to physically mirror and mimic her facial movements to a greater extent than two-dimensional video viewers. Meanwhile, in subjective tests that asked viewers about the emotional intensity of the story, there was no significant difference between both groups — nor was there a difference in their positive or negative feelings toward the story.

Facial mirroring is a technique that humans often subconsciously employ when communicating with others in person to show that they comprehend the emotional content of a particular story. But in some ways, mimicking facial expressions can also be a sign of a deeper social motivation and investment in another person's struggles. "When you mimic a smile of a person, that means, 'I'm with you. I trust you. I'm ready to approach you. You're one of my own.'" Golland said. "It is indicative of a motivational system and not only of the emotional system."

Apart from the study's findings related to the efficacy of VR, researchers also looked into the dynamics of facial synchrony more generally. To monitor the degree to which viewers mirrored the facial expressions of the storyteller, the researchers tracked two regions of the face: the corrugator muscles, used to furrow one's eyebrows while concentrating or frowning, and the zygomatic cheek muscles, which are used while smiling. 

Scientists tend to use the corrugator muscles for monitoring negative emotions and the zygomatic cheek muscles for positive emotions, but the IDC Herzliya researchers found that this was not always the case in their VR study. For instance, in situations in which the woman shared a particularly distressing or saddening detail, the scientists would have expected her corrugator muscles to become active. Instead the researchers observed her smiling, possibly out of a sense of embarrassment, vulnerability or uneasiness.

In the past, researchers have studied how more traditional video formats alter one's emotional state by tracking viewers' cardiovascular and electrodermal responses to frightening and saddening films. But now that VR is a relatively accessible platform, Golland's team wanted to identify how its unique interactive properties might alter viewers' emotional and empathetic responses.

Golland experienced this phenomenon for herself in a previous investigation. The study involved Golland and other collaborators writing a fictional story with multiple emotional highlights and asking an actor to deliver the lines to see how volunteers would respond. Golland found herself crying while viewing the story, despite knowing that it was a completely made-up scenario that she herself had created. 

"The power of VR is not about inducing the strong emotional effects, because movies are perfect for strong emotional effects," she explained. What sets VR apart is its ability to immerse a person in someone else's physical space — what researchers refer to as social presence, Golland said. Although it may not be perfectly able to replicate in-person interactions, VR could serve as an alternative for capturing an intangible sense of presence when face-to-face conversations are not possible.

"I think that the idea of social VR, in which a group of people or two people can create connections, communicate and interact as avatars in virtual realities, I find that fascinating," Golland said. "And investigating the social dynamics that we know from the real world [and how they] change in this virtual world, I find it really interesting."

The study "Exposure to social suffering in virtual reality boosts compassion and facial synchrony" published on April 12 in Computers in Human Behavior, was authored by Yulia Golland, Doron Friedman, Beatrice Hasler, Nava Levit-Binnun, Daniel H. Landau and Daniela Cohen, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.  

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