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Virtual Reality and Humanitarian Aid: Increasing Empathy or False Understanding?

Presenters Name: 
Jayla Hart
Co Presenters Name: 
Primary Research Mentor: 
Sophie Trawalter
Secondary Research Mentor: 
1:15 - 1:30
Time of Presentation: 
2019 - 1:15pm to 1:30pm
Room 389
Presentation Type: 
Presentations Academic Category: 
Social Science
Grant Program Recipient: 
USOAR Program

Little research has currently been done into the various ways in which immersion in virtual reality (VR) increases one’s understanding, empathy, and compassion for others. This project is the first part of a two-part study that seeks to test the effectiveness of VR in increasing prosocial behavior (i.e donations) towards refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs) through the UVA Humanitarian Collaborative with the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Office. During the first study, participants viewed one of three videos: a VR video about a refugee, a standard video (same content as VR video), or a neutral video (the control condition). Afterward, they took a survey about their feelings toward refugees and their support for pro-refugee policies; they were also given the opportunity to donate their study compensation ($6) to a refugee aid organization or two other, unrelated aid campaigns. Results revealed a main effect of condition on empathy toward refugees and support for pro-refugee policies but not donations. In addition, mediation analyses suggested that VR led to increased empathy that, in turn, led to increased support for pro-refugee policies. Taken together, the first part of this study suggests that VR can increase empathy, at least in the moment, and lead to some prosocial behavior; in this case, support for pro-refugee policies. Moving forward, in the second part of the study, we will continue examining whether increased empathy and policy support also comes at a cost; namely, a false understanding of the experience of refugees.