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Since its inception and popularization in the early 2010’s, virtual reality technology has been used for a vast array of applications from education and art to engineering, entertainment, and beyond. Recently, immersive VR technology is also being used to address the issue of domestic abuse and violence in a series of experimental studies. The goal is to enhance emotional recognition skills and subsequently foster an increased capacity for empathy among domestic violence offenders. While this is clearly a deserving cause and noble goal, the question is does this application truly work or are we overestimating the power of virtual reality?

Domestic Abuse

Domestic abuse, also referred to as domestic violence or intimate partner violence, is characterized as a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. This includes physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, or economic actions designed to manipulate, coerce, frighten, intimidate, humiliate, injure, or terrorize someone. Domestic abuse can occur in any relationship and affects people of all backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and education levels.[1]

According to statistics published by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused by an intimate partner in the United States. Various negative mental, physical, sexual, and reproductive health effects have been linked to domestic violence and studies suggest that there is a direct relationship between domestic abuse, depression, and suicidal behavior.[2] Domestic abuse is a pervasive issue that leads to distressing outcomes and justifiably deserves extensive research into ways to combat and prevent its occurrence. Recently, researchers across the globe have been searching for a possible answer to this dilemma using virtual reality immersion.

Empathy and Emotional Recognition

The role of empathy and perspective-taking abilities in mediating aggressive behaviors has been a well-documented theory behind the occurrence of interpersonal violence. Theories of aggression have suggested that the perpetration of violence against others is linked to a lack of cognitive empathy or the ability of offenders to put themselves in the perspective of their victims and understand their emotions.

The ability to recognize emotions in the facial expressions of others is a key component of effective interpersonal communication.[3] Studies have shown that domestic abuse offenders have a significantly lower capacity for recognizing and understanding the emotions expressed in the faces of others and even tend to misclassify emotional expressions.

The VR Experiments

Researchers have come up with the idea of using immersive VR technology to give male offenders the sensation of experiencing an episode of domestic abuse from the perspective of a female victim. The researchers hypothesized that the virtual reality experience may foster cognitive empathy in violent offenders by having them “physically” embody the victim’s perspective, an ability that they clinically lack. The overall goal is to investigate how the difference in perspective during a violent interaction impacts empathy and an individual’s ability to recognize emotional facial cues in others.[3]

In one experiment, a group of male offenders who had been convicted of domestic violence against women were assessed on measures of their emotional recognition capacity and compared to a control group of men without any histories of violent offenses. The results showed that the men had a significantly lower ability to recognize fear in female faces. Not only did they typically fail to recognize emotions, but they also tended to mistakenly classify fearful expressions as appearing happy.

The men were then exposed to an immersive VR program that was designed to induce the illusion of full-body ownership over their female-bodied avatar thus allowing them to have a first-person experience as a female victim of domestic abuse. The avatars’ movements were perfectly synchronized with the movements of the participants’ bodies. The participants first underwent a process called embodiment designed to strengthen the illusion of being the avatar where they looked at themselves in a mirror and interacted with various objects in the virtual space.

Following this process, a male VR character enters the space and begins verbally abusing the participant. The male character proceeds to invade the participants’ personal space and throw objects such as a telephone onto the floor. If the participant spoke up, the male character commanded them to “shut up.” If they looked away, the male character shouted to them, “look at me!” After completing the virtual encounter, the offenders were again assessed on measures of their emotional recognition capacity. The results indicated that after being embodied in a female victim, the offenders showed an improved ability to recognize fearful female faces and reduced their tendency to misclassify fearful expressions as happy.[3]

Does this truly work?

Research has suggested that virtual reality can elicit strong emotional responses in the user, especially those linked to anxiety, stress, and fear. Other studies have found that some virtual reality programs can promote pro-social behavior among users, but only to a limited extent.[4]

While the results of this study indicated that VR may have promising applications for decreasing re-offenses among perpetrators of domestic abuse, similar studies have reached different conclusions. For example, studies have been published that show that virtual reality is not effective in generating long-term cognitive empathy that allows an individual to identify, understand, and relate to the emotions of others in various contexts. Other studies regarding VR and domestic violence have reported successful results in promoting cognitive empathy.[4] Further extensive, empirical, and peer-reviewed studies must be conducted to fully conclude if VR is a viable tool for addressing violent behaviors among domestic abuse offenders and if so, to what extent it works and how.

GKIS Resources

If you enjoyed reading this article, check out the GKIS Blog for many other articles on a wide array of interesting topics such as gaming, GKIS recommendations, impacts of social media, news-worthy stories, screen safety, popular apps, and so much more. You can also check out Dr. Tracy Bennett’s book, Screen Time in the Mean Time: A Parenting Guide to Get Kids and Teens Internet Safe for family-tested parenting strategies that will help you build the tools you need to help your family navigate today’s technological pitfalls.

Thanks to CSUCI intern, Mackenzie Morrow for researching the use of VR for combatting domestic violence and co-authoring this article.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.                                  Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty


Photo Credits

Photo by Remy Gieling (https://unsplash.com/s/photos/vr-headset)

Photo by Angel Lopez (https://unsplash.com/s/photos/sad-woman)

Photo by Olya Kobruseva (https://www.pexels.com/photo/question-marks-on-paper-crafts-5428836/)

Works Cited

[1] https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/what-is-domestic-abuse

[2] https://ncadv.org/STATISTICS

[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-19987-7

[4] https://theconversation.com/empathy-machine-or-false-hope-how-virtual-reality-is-being-used-to-try-to-stop-domestic-violence-168862

Mackenzie Morrow
Mackenzie Morrow