Scientists Develop A Virtual Reality System That Improves Violent Offenders’ Ability To Empathise With Victims


By Fattima Mahdi Truth Theory

Experiences shape us. Just as we can grow vain and narcissistic through undue success and pleasure, we can be made humble and empathetic through failure and pain. There are many of us out there who need certain experiences to come our way, in order to make vital changes in our attitudes and lives. And this is beginning to be recognised by those working to rehabilitate criminals.

A research team comprised of scientists from IDIBAPS and the University of Barcelona have developed a virtual reality programme that places men who have committed crimes of domestic violence in the shoes of victims. The programme was used in an experiment, which involved 20 offenders and 19 control people. Prior to the VR experience, both groups were given an emotional recognition test, measuring their ability to see certain emotions in other peoples’ faces. The test revealed that the offenders had a significantly low ability to recognise fear in a women. The 20 offenders then underwent the VR experience, where they were confronted by a virtual man who invaded their space and told them to “shut up” whenever they spoke, or “look at me” whenever they looked away. The 20 offenders then took the test again but it yielded different results – showing an improvement in their ability to recognise fear in women.

“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,” said Mavi Sánchez Vives, coordinator of the study,“ and it is thought these lie behind that violence.”

The results of this study hold great potential for the future of criminal reform. The standard practices for rehabilitating criminals must evolve. Such punishments as being looked in an extremely small and dark room, in prolonged solitude, only breeds resentment in the recipient of that punishment. They haven’t learned why what they did to receive the punishment was wrong, they’ve only learned what happens to them when they get caught doing it. If more resources were dedicated to teaching the virtues of socially acceptable behaviour where it is amiss, then rehabilitation would become far more prevalent in society.

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