How Virtual Reality Could Help To Rehabilitate Domestic Abusers
The link between virtual reality and empathy is known to be strong. Placing a person into a virtual situation is seen to evoke the same emotional response as it would if they were physically there. Many industries are utilising VR technology and we have seen it within the charity sector, virtually immersing the public into Africa, surrounded by starving children or in the depths of the rainforest to see the destruction being caused. Greenpeace research shows that they had double the signup rate to their cause, due to their use of virtual reality. So if virtual reality can evoke such emotive responses, how else can we use it to change behaviour?
Well, The University of Barcelona has coordinated a study using virtual reality to improve empathy and rehabilitate previous domestic violence abusers, by placing them in the victims shoes. Mavi Sanchez Vives, the study coordinator 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”
The study began by asking male abusers, to take a test to measure their empathy levels and ability to recognise emotions being displayed by others. The participants were then placed into a virtual world, where their body was that of a woman. They then had to endure the situation of having a male abuser enter the scene, who verbally abused them, threateningly looked at them directly in the eyes, and screamed ‘look at me!’ if the participant turned to look away. As horrendous as this may be to endure, in putting the shoe on the other foot, the abusers got to experience the same behaviours that they had inflicted on their victims in real life.
Results of the study showed that before going through the virtual reality experience, the offenders had a low ability to identify when a woman was showing fear on her face. Inability to recognise emotion, is thought to be a reason why many abusers don’t feel any remorse, or empathy when being violent towards another person and therefore continue to do so.
After experiencing the verbal abuse themselves as the virtual female victim, their ability to recognise emotion hugely improved on the follow up test, as they were able to feel exactly what their victims felt. Fear.
Virtual reality has the power to change perception. If this technology holds the key to making domestic violence abusers, recognise that they are causing fear and pain to another person, it should stop them from continuing with their violent behaviour. The success of this study shows how VR could be a vital tool for rehabilitation, not just for domestic violence but for offenders of many different criminal charges.
It is easy to turn and blind eye to the hurt being caused either around us, or by us, but virtual reality immerses people into the difficult situations that they don’t want to face. By evoking empathy, VR is a powerful, behaviour changing, tool.