The conventional wisdom in tech is that virtual reality helps people empathize more easily. Like so many popular ideas in tech, this belief caught on thanks in large part to a TED Talk. In 2015, VR designer Chris Milk gave a presentation in which he said VR is “a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected.”
Maybe not. A recent study by three doctoral researchers—Alison Jane Martingano, Fernanda Hererra and Sara Konrath—concluded that VR improves people’s emotional empathy, but not their cognitive empathy. In plain English, that means VR might help people feel emotions about other people’s experiences but not necessarily to understand what another person is feeling going through those experiences.