If the world feels like a colder, meaner place these days, virtual reality may come to the rescue. Researchers across the globe are using immersive digital worlds to place users in someone else’s shoes and, at least temporarily, help them become kinder, more compassionate people.

Virtual reality is better known for its potential in gaming, but scientists, as well as filmmakers, writers, artists, and designers, are using VR to reduce racial bias, promote environmentalism, encourage empathy for prisoners, humanize political enemies, or even help users make better financial choices. It’s working, to some extent.

“We have spent the past fifteen years designing experiments to test the efficacy of VR to teach empathy. Across dozens of studies, a pattern emerges in that VR tends to be a more effective tool than other media and role-playing techniques,” Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says via email.

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Though changes are often small, Bailenson adds, studies repeatedly show that virtual reality experiences can impact thoughts and behaviors in the real world.

Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn has observed these behavioral changes first hand. In 2011, then a graduate student in Bailenson’s lab, Ahn sent study participants a questionnaire to determine how likely they were to understand the perspective of others. Two days later, the participants were provided with basic information about red-green colorblindness — a visual disorder that causes difficulty distinguishing between certain hues — and asked to verbally guide a person they believed to be colorblind through a series of virtual reality color-matching exercises. Read More

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