Unlocking Empathy: How VR Transcends Politics to Drive Donations for Refugee Crises

Pullman, Washington When political conservatives donned virtual reality headsets to see a video about Syrian refugees, their empathy for the people on screen was significantly higher than when they saw the same film on a two-dimensional computer screen.

Unlocking Empathy: How VR Transcends Politics to Drive Donations for Refugee Crises
VR: Bridging Politics, Fueling Refugee Crisis Donations

A study on the topic published in New Media & Society found that conservatives who viewed the VR version of the documentary "Clouds over Sidra" had higher compassion levels and were thus more likely to give to the disaster.

After seeing both of the documentary's versions, liberal research participants expressed a great deal of sympathy and a desire to give. According to a study done by Washington State University, virtual reality (VR) technology may be able to unite disparate ideological viewpoints and change viewers' perceptions such that they are more compassionate and understanding of migrants. The study's findings may have an impact on groups working to inspire people to take action against human misery.

"We aimed to investigate whether individuals' political beliefs would influence their emotional reaction to virtual reality, as this area has not received much attention," stated Porismita Borah, the study's principal author and a professor at the Edward R. Murrow College of Education. "We discovered that individuals in the VR condition felt more compassion for refugees and were more likely to donate, regardless of their political ideology."

Borah and associates from WSU, Texas Tech, and Purdue University conducted a research to find out how VR technology affected a politically diverse group of people's compassion and understanding for migrants. Additionally, they examined how the research participants' propensity to give to aid organisations was affected by VR technology.

Two tests were conducted with more than 200 college-age participants; the main research was conducted in autumn 2021, and a pilot study took place in autumn 2019. In all trials, participants watched the United Nations video "Clouds Over Sidra," which depicts the life of a 12-year-old Syrian girl in a Jordanian refugee camp, and self-reported their political affiliation. Both groups were assessed on their empathy, compassion, and desire to give to various humanitarian relief organisations both before and after seeing the video.

While it was discovered that VR technology generally increased empathy and sympathy for the predicament of migrants, its results changed when political ideology was taken into consideration.

Remarkably, after interacting with VR information, conservatives reported much higher levels of compassion than after seeing the documentary in a conventional video format. Compared to seeing the programme in two dimensions on a computer screen, conservatives indicated a stronger desire to give to relief organisations as a result of their increased compassion. However, after seeing both versions of the film, liberal research participants showed a desire to give as well as higher degrees of initial compassion for immigrants.

The limitations of their work are acknowledged by the researchers. All of the study's participants were college-age individuals, and it measured their emotional reactions to a single crisis.

However, the research shows how VR is starting to affect political beliefs and involvement in humanitarian causes, which has consequences for both theory and practice.

"It's important to understand how political ideology can affect the VR experience because it suggests that new technologies may have the ability to influence predispositions like ideology," stated Borah. "I believe that NGOs and other groups looking for creative approaches to educate the public about refugee crises and other humanitarian disasters may find use for this work."

Bimbisar Irom, Yoon Joo Lee, Danielle Ka Lai Lee, Di Mu, Ron Price, and Anastasia Vishnevskaya from Texas Tech University, as well as Eylul Yel from Purdue University, are co-authors of the work.

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