Exposure to social suffering in virtual reality boosts compassion and facial synchrony

Daniela Cohen, Daniel H. Landau, Doron Friedman, Béatrice S. Hasler, Nava Levit-Binnun, Yulia Golland*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

    2 Citations (Scopus)


    Virtual reality (VR) has recently been popularized as the “ultimate empathy machine,” and yet the science behind the effects of VR on empathy is scarce. In this media-comparison study, we assessed the impact of VR upon physiological and subjective indicators of empathy. Furthermore, we investigated the role of social presence, i.e. the experience of being there with real others, in modulating the empathic responses. We filmed a 360° 3D video of a person disclosing a painful autobiographical story from her past. This empathy-eliciting video was presented either in a VR head-mounted display or on a computer screen. Centrally, autonomic and facial responses were recorded both from the target in the video and from participants who viewed the video. We found that the VR condition enhanced viewers’ empathic care and facial synchrony with the target. Viewers in the VR condition also reported higher levels of social presence, which mediated the effects of VR on empathic care as well as on facial synchrony. The current study highlights the potential of VR to elicit social connectedness and a caring motivation to help. Our findings imply that VR has a unique potential to motivate empathy in situations where face-to-face encounters are not possible.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number106781
    Number of pages10
    JournalComputers in Human Behavior
    Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2021
    MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


    • 360 video
    • Compassion
    • Empathy
    • Social presence
    • Social VR
    • Synchrony


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