Virtual reality therapy can help improve an offender’s empathy by experiencing victims’ point of view

Can virtual reality help violent individuals who lack emotional recognition improve their perception of emotions?

Researchers from the University of Barcelona and the August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS) designed a virtual reality system that may help instill empathy in violent offenders.

The system allows men who committed a domestic violence crime to experience what their victims have gone through.

Violence towards other individuals is often linked to a lack of empathy, or the abuser’s difficulty in putting themselves in the victim’s shoes. While there are other studies that show violent people have a hard time identifying emotions like fear or rage, there are discrepancies because of the methodologies used to determine the empathy and ethical problems that these studies present.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that virtual reality technology can be an effective part of treatment for phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health conditions.

The researchers worked on a new study concerning empathy and aggressiveness in violent people. The experiment allowed participants to experience for themselves a virtual situation of violence from the victim’s point of view. The study is based on research that relies on an immersive virtual reality that gives participants a virtual body that replaces theirs.

Mavi Sánchez Vives, coordinator of the study, explained that while virtual bodies are different from the participant’s, they will still undergo a strong subjective illusion of owning the virtual body. These illusions can influence the participant by “altering perceptions, attitudes, and behavior.” (Related: Shocking scientific study concludes violent video games may REDUCE real-world violence by providing a safe outlet for aggression.)

Changing the perpetrator’s perspective of domestic violence

The main objective of the study was to look into some of the mechanisms of a certain kind of violent behavior: Domestic violence. Researchers studied the impact of this immersive virtual reality in the recognition of emotions in two kinds of people: Abusers and control participants.

Before and after the virtual reality session, the subjects, which included 20 offenders and 19 control people, took a test to gauge emotional recognition to see if the experience can influence their perception and empathy.

In the virtual reality session, participants entered a virtual atmosphere where their body was replaced by that of a virtual woman. Participants underwent a process of assimilation and identification of their virtual self.

Each participant then witnessed a virtual man enter the scene and engage in violent behavior, through both gestures and speech. The virtual man progressively invades the victim’s personal space.

Mel Slater, co-author of the study and director of the Experimental Virtual Environments for Neuroscience and Technology in the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Barcelona, commented that the atmosphere is interactive and the abuser looks at the participant’s face and yells “Shut up!” when speaking, or “Look at me!” if the participant’s virtual body is “looking elsewhere.”

The study’s results imply that offenders have a notably lower ability of recognizing fear in a woman’s face compared to the control people.

Sofia Seinfield, first author of the article and IDIBAPS researcher, shared that once they experienced being the victim themselves in the virtual reality session, the men’s ability to recognize fear in others improved.

Sánchez Vives concluded, “In this study we show, for the first time, that changing aggressive people’s perspective with immersive virtual reality, processes like emotion recognition can be modified. And it is thought these lie behind that violence.”

You can learn more about how virtual therapy can influence empathy at

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