Virtual reality improves offenders’ empathy

Researchers from IDIBAPS and the University of Barcelona developed a virtual reality system so that men who committed a domestic violence crime can get into the victim’s shoes. The study, published in Scientific Reports, shows that these violent people have a lack of emotional recognition and that virtual experience improves the participant’s perception of emotions.

On February 22, the results of the study were presented in an event in which the following participants took part:  Professor Elías Campo, director of IDIBAPS; Mavi Sánchez Vives, coordinator of the study and ICREA researcher in IDIBAPS, where she leads the Systems Neuroscience team; Mel Slater, director of the Experimental Virtual Environments for Neuroscience and Technology (Event Lab) in the Institute of Neurosciences of the University of Barcelona and co-author of the study; and Sofia Seinfield, first signer of the study and researcher at IDIBAPS and Event Lab.

Violent acts to other people are related to a lack of empathy or the abuser’s difficulty to put him/herself on the victim’s shoes. Although there are studies that prove that violent people have difficulties in identifying emotions like fear or rage, there are some discrepancies due the used methodology to determine empathy and ethical problems these studies present.

The published study in Scientific Reports provides a new view on the study of empathy and aggressiveness in violent people, since it allows participants to experiment in person a virtual situation of violence from the victim’s perspective. The study is based on studies in which thanks to immersive virtual reality, participants receive a virtual body that replaces theirs. “Virtual bodies can be drastically different from the participant’s, but even so, the individual goes under a strong subjective illusion of owning the virtual body. These illusions have an impact on the participant by altering perceptions, attitudes and behaviour”, said Mavi Sánchez Vives.


The impact of changing the perspective in domestic violence

The main objective of the study was to research on some of the mechanisms of a certain kind of violent behaviour: domestic violence. Researchers analysed the impact of this immersive virtual reality in the recognition of emotions in two kinds of people, abusers and control participants. Before and after of the virtual reality session, participants, twenty offenders and nineteen control people, took a test on emotional recognition to determine whether the experience would change their perception and empathy.

In the session, participants entered a virtual atmosphere in which their body was replaced by that of a virtual woman, and they underwent a process of assimilation and identification of their virtual self. Then they saw a virtual man who entered the scene and displayed a violent behaviour, both in gestures and language, who took the victim’s personal space progressively. “The atmosphere is interactive, since the abuser looks at the participant’s face and shouts ‘shut up!’ when speaking, or ‘look at me!’ if looking elsewhere”, said Mel Slater, co-author of the study.

The results show that offenders have a significant lower ability to recognize fear in a woman’s face compared to the control people. “After experiencing themselves as the victim, in the virtual reality session, the ability to realize about that fear improved”, said Sofia Seinfield, first author of the article.

“In this study we show, for the first time, that changing aggressive people’s perspective with immersive virtual reality, processes like emotion recognition can be modified. And it is thought these lie behind that violence”, said Mavi Sánchez Vives, coordinator of the study.


Reference article:

Seinfeld, S.; Arroyo-Palacios, J.; Iruretagoyena, G.; Hortensius, R.; Zapata, L. E.; Borland, D.; De Gelder, B.; Slater, M., y Sánchez-Vives, M. V. “Offenders become the victim in virtual reality: impact of changing perspective in domestic violence”Scientific Reports, February 2018. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-19987-7