Can Avatar Therapy Fix D.C.’s Partisan Strife?

A key to therapy has always been empathy, but according to a fascinating piece in today’s New York Times, that process can be supercharged by putting patients into new bodies in the form of virtual avatars.

Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford, had 50 college students enter a virtual environment and acquire a virtual body.

The students whose avatars were taller behaved in a more social and aggressive manner, those with shorter avatars the opposite. This behavior carried over even after the virutal reality session ended. And none of the subjects were consciouly aware of the physical differences between their avatars.

“What we learn in one body is shared with other bodies we inhabit, whether virtual or physical,” the study concluded. Students who were placed in avatars of elderly humans showed more empathy towards seniors in subsequent tests. “You can see the possibilities already,” said Dr. Slater. “For example, you can put someone with a racial bias in the body of a person of another race.”

Obviously this technology is still being developed. But for the good of the nation, perhaps it could be field tested right now in our nation’s capital. If college students can be taught to empathize with senior citizens, perhaps Democrats and Republicans can learn to work together by spending some time in each other’s skin.

“This is to me the most exciting thing about using virtual environments for behavior change,” Dr. Bailenson said. “It’s not only that you can create these versions of reality; it’s that you can cross boundaries — that you can take risks, break things, do things you could not or would not do in real life.”

bpopper [at] observer.com | @benpopper

Can Avatar Therapy Fix D.C.’s Partisan Strife?