Published on February 3, 2021

Popular claims of virtual reality systems serving as ‘empathy machines’ often fail to consider (a) the cognitive mechanisms driving the effects of technological immersion on empathy and (b) the conceptualization of empathy as a multidimensional construct. More, recent research has yielded mixed empirical support. This study investigates how dimensions of psychological presence—perceived self-location, sense of copresence, and judgments of social realism—mediate the effect of immersion on cognitive, affective, and associative empathy. Findings indicate that experiencing a news story via 360° video on a head-mounted display led to stronger self-location and copresence than engaging with the same video via desktop or reading a text version. While only copresence increased cognitive empathy, both self-location and copresence facilitated affective empathy. Whereas self-location and copresence enhanced associative empathy, social realism decreased it. These results highlight the value of a multidimensional conceptualization of empathy in investigating the prosocial potential of immersive media.

Publisher: New Media & Society (2021)

Co-authors: TIernan Cahill, Li Zhang