Empathy Machines: Can virtual reality prevent domestic abuse?

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Can tech help prevent a repeat offence? In France and Spain, virtual reality is being experimented with in cases of domestic violence. Headsets offer a “total immersion” experience where an offender can virtually experience the kind of violence he was perpetrating.

The idea is to use VR as a kind of empathy machine that allows men to experience and perhaps understand a very specific kind of fear, Guillaume Clere, founder of Reverto, a startup working with the French ministry of justice on the project, said in an interview with Radio France Internationale, the state-owned international radio broadcaster of France.

Domestic violence experts have helped develop the scenarios, lasting about 12 minutes each, which address themes of control, psychological violence and physical violence.

Thirty male volunteers chose to participate in the experiment in France, which began in October and will run for a year in three prisons. “We have given priority to the profiles that are most likely to re-offend,” the justice ministry said on RFI. The project will then be independently evaluated with a view to implementing it on a broader scale.

The effects could be more notional than real, its critics say. Alison Jane Martingano, a social psychologist specialising in empathy and communication, casts doubts on using VR as an empathy machine in a study published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior, in 2021.

VR might tap into emotional empathy, but not cognitive empathy, she argues. In the same way that image showing victims of a migrant tragedy or a natural disaster may cause a rush of emotion that quickly fades, the VR experiences could fade over time.

Cognitive empathy involves understanding what another person is experiencing without necessarily having an emotional response. “Cognitive empathy requires effort: One must consciously try to take someone else’s perspective. Cognitive empathy leads us to care without the negative side effects of emotional distress, which could make it a more reliable solution,” Martingano tells HT Wknd.

“My scepticism of VR as an empathy quick-fix comes from the knowledge that there probably isn’t a quick fix, because it takes a long time to practise and improve these skills. So VR should be used as just another tool to provide a space for people to practise and work at it. It’s really the practice and the work that’s the critical ingredient.”

Empathy can be taught both formally and informally by breaking down different scenarios and reflecting on the experiences of the people involved, practising listening without interrupting, or simply being willing to look past one’s biases, she adds. But it’s a process that can’t be shortened or hastened. The VR, in fact, could even have the opposite effect of desensitisation, she says.


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