VR to improve empathy in domestic abusers

In a study, researchers from the University of Barcelona have shown that violent people have a lack of emotional recognition, but that a virtual experience improves their empathy. Although there are surveys which contend that violent people have difficulties in identifying emotions like fear or rage, there are some discrepancies due to the used methodology to determine empathy and ethical problems these studies present. Based on the same result, researchers have developed a virtual reality system to treat men who have committed a domestic violence crime, by placing them in their victim’s shoes.

The VR system allows participants to experiment in person a virtual situation of violence from the victim’s perspective. Researchers analyzed 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 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. Post which they saw a virtual man who entered the scene and displayed a violent behavior, both in gestures and language, who took the victim’s personal space progressively. As reported, the atmosphere is pretty interactive as the abuser looks at the participant’s face and shouts ‘shut up!’ when speaking, or ‘look at me!’ if looking elsewhere.

Talking about the experience, Mavi Sánchez Vives coordinator of the study and ICREA researcher in IDIBAPS said, “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 behavior. 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.”


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