Virtual Reality Research Is Looking In To Altruism

Teaching empathy through virtual Reality is something we have talked about before. By definition Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in the place of another. Therefore understanding their problems almost as if we ourselves were suffering them.

Altruism is a very related emotion or situation where you help others out of goodwill rather than expecting something in return. With VR’s success in the area of empathy, altruism research is a very related topic that has scientists and researchers excited.

The SISSA’s and University of Udine’s VR Experiments

A research team in Triestre, Italy is developing Virtual Reality scenarios  in an attempt to discover the origin of Altruism. The scenario set before them had them make a decision, save themselves or risk their lives to save another person.

As participants went through the simulation, researchers studied their responses and brain activity. And they were all given psychological tests before they entered the simulation.

It turns out that sixty five percent of participants decided to save the injured person, and from studying the participants the researchers came to an interesting discovery:

The Altruistic individual had a larger anterior insula, than those who didn’t.

This area of the brain is related to social feelings, and this with this difference also scored higher on their Psychological examination.

The Scenario

The scenario was put together to research altruism, not realism, and so graphics were not a priority. That said, the sense of emergency is definitely communicated.

Subjects appeared in an empty classroom, after walking for a bit an emergency alarm would start sounding… Over the speakers what seems to be an automated announcer would say “Attention, a fire has been detected. Please exit the building, following the emergency exit signs” over and over again.

Subjects had to follow the exit signs along empty corridors, they were also shown a health bar on the upper right corner.

As the scenario progresses the health bar would drop from inhaling smoke. By the very end the character was close to death when an injured person would ask for help. People would have to choose to risk their virtual lives to save the injured person, and those who did barely managed to escape alive.

Interpreting the Results

It’s hard to say what exactly these means, sixty five percent of the subjects decided to help. Does this mean they would actually help on a real life threatening situation? Does this mean none of the other would?

What it did show is that Altruism is somehow associated with the anterior insula, which is related to social feelings. This means that the more social people are likely to be more altruistic. The anterior insula is also associated with the amount of social interaction someone has and has been connected to the introvert/extrovert scale. It doesn’t mean that we introverts are not altruistic, but it might be less likely.

The Italian team believes this particular VR experiment opens a lot more questions to research, this in turns makes them hopeful that VR will be in the center of these VR Experiments.

VR Experiments

Psychology researchers are excited about VR experiments. This kind of scenarios would have been impossible to replicate without risk to participants if it wasn’t for VR. This means that VR experiments are going to help us better understand our brains.

This is the result of the ability to safely replicate any scenario through VR experiments. For those researching how our brains work this is probably one of the most exciting techs.


Image Credit Jason Tester Guerilla Future



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