It Turns Out There Are Some Downsides to the Magical Box


A good proportion of science fiction can be summed up like this: scientists invent a black box that does a magical thing. Hooray! Oh no… wait… that magical thing has some kinks. Oh dear, oh my, look what has happened, it turns out that there are some downsides to the magical box.

The thing is, that it’s not just science fiction that works this way, it’s also how a lot of today’s technologies and and startups go. Look you can share links with your friends and families instantly via Twitter or Facebook! Hooray! Oh no… wait… the Nazis have taken over.

I recently wrote a piece for TOPIC about another one of these magical black boxes: virtual reality. In particular, virtual reality as the “ultimate empathy machine.” The conceit here is this: the best way to understand someone else is to step into their shoes and experience their lives. Virtual reality allows that, whether by way of computer generated graphics or through 360 degree documentary films. And because virtual reality can allow this kind of digital body swapping, it therefore must be the very best possible way to foster empathy. The piece I wrote for TOPIC detailed a few of the ways that these experiences can backfire, based on the available psychological research.

But there was one thing that I didn’t have space to talk about in that story, so I’m going to expand on the piece here.

This will probably work best if your read the TOPIC story first, but in case you don’t want to, here are two important sections from the piece that set up the context.

First, here are some of the VR empathy experiences that exist in the world right now:

A new virtual reality film created by a non-profit called The Cornerstone Partnership aims to show parents what it’s like to be abused and neglected as a child. The 5-minute VR film puts the viewer in the shoes of a two-year-old in an abusive home—the film features a father cursing, yelling, kicking a trash can, and leaning into the camera menacingly. The hope is that Cornerstone’s film will allow adoptive or foster parents to better understand and connect with kids who come from abusive homes if they know what those experiences are actually like. Another VR experience, created by a journalist named Nonny de la Peña in 2010, puts people in the shoes of a man named Baha Mousa, an Iraqi civilian who died in British custody in 2003 after being imprisoned in stress positions. Other contemporary VR experiences allow audiences to get in line at a food bank in Los Angeles, and watch as a man passes out on the sidewalk. Or embody a prisoner in Guantanamo. Or swap bodies with someone to foster “cross gender” empathy. In a 2016 virtual reality film called Across the Line, produced in partnership with Planned Parenthood, viewers are placed in the shoes of a pregnant woman harassed and attacked by anti-abortion activists. Virtual reality allows viewers to experience homelessness, the refugee crisis, disability, pregnancy, old age. Strap into a pair of goggles, fire up a traumatic on-demand experience, and feel your connection to affected but distant strangers surge.

Second, here is how I imagine VR empathy experiences might be used in the future, if we don’t temper the excitement for the technology now:

It’s 2030, and virtual reality has gotten really, really good. There are companies all over the world who’ve invested in the incredible promise of a technology that can connect us all. In this future, VR isn’t just a cool gadget, it’s a key safeguard, a technology that protects us from our worst selves.

In this world, major life milestones and civic processes must be subjected to empathy tests within VR experiences. Expectant parents are required to enroll in VR classes to let them really feel what carrying a baby to term is all about. Anyone adopting a dog is made to sit and watch a mandatory VR film about animal abuse. At every job, sexual harassment training is replaced by a sexual harassment VR experience, putting us in the shoes of a young employee being leered at and groped by an older executive. Those of us who aim to be teachers and camp counselors are required to take VR training on what it feels like to be bullied. Our politicians are required to experience what it’s like to live as a refugee or an immigrant before they’re allowed to pass laws impacting either. Our soldiers must take on the perspectives of their opponents. Our doctors have to put on goggles to understand chronic pain or psychiatric disorders before treating patients. Jurors must experience the victim and the accused’s accounts of the events that took place the night of a particular crime.

Again, please go read the TOPIC piece, since it talks a lot about what science says about how these experiences might not go exactly according to plan. But the bit that I didn’t wind up having space for was how these kinds of experiences might intersect with burnout and preexisting trauma.

The type of empathy that these VR experiences foster is something that researchers call “personal distress.” You are stepping into someone’s shoes and feeling the stress and fatigue and anger and terror that they feel. But studies show that this type of empathy can cause mental health issues and burnout. In one study on nurses, researchers found that those with a tendency to “over identify” with a patient’s suffering were actually worse at their jobs than those who were able to listen and reflect and feel concern without inhabiting that patient’s pain. Another study found that nurses who are overly empathetic in this way also have much higher rates of burnout and mental health issues. And studies of nurses, doctors, social workers, firefighters and even hairdressers have also shown that this kind of empathy is a limited resource, and those who use it too much at work find they run out of it when they get home, and have trouble connecting with their friends and family.

And it’s not just people in high stress jobs like medicine or nursing who are experiencing burnout these days. SaraKay Smullens, a social worker and the author of Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work, says that she’s seeing burnout in all kinds of fields right now. (In fact, she wrote her book for social workers, and was then surprised to be inundated with calls from doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents, people from all over the country who found her work useful to their lives.)  “What we’re seeing now is that life today can be so insensitive, fast paced, and unkind that people are on macro burnout. It isn’t just those of us working with vulnerable populations, it’s everyone,” she told me. That, combined with the uncertain state of politics and the future, and Smullens says that social workers and therapists are having a harder time helping people. “It used to be when people confronted them about anxieties, I could show them that their anxieties were irrational and I really can’t do that anymore.”

All this can be compounded when you remember that the people putting on these VR goggles aren’t blank slates. One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. One in four girls, and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. In the United States, 10 percent of women will develop PTSD at some point in their lives, alongside four percent of men who will do the same. Imagine then, asking these people to put on goggles and experience sexual harassment or assault as part of an HR training. In many of these experiences, there’s no way out aside from ripping off the goggles. There’s no safety valve, no safe word.

So when we consider that we may ask our employees, bosses, loved ones, and even kids, to put on these kinds of goggles and take part in these kinds of experiences, we have to think about what kinds of trauma that might poke at or compound. Smullens pointed out that you can’t just ask someone if they have a traumatic past. “People use compartmentalization as a defense.” Smullens says. “So suppose they’ve been beaten but they’ve blocked it off to function, and they go through this, can you imagine how overwhelmed they’d be?” In other words, a person may have abuse in their past, but they’ve buried the memory and aren’t even necessarily consciously aware of that part of their past. This can happen long into adulthood. But when presented with a scenario that might be similar in VR, what happens? The answer right now, is that we don’t know.

And even those who haven’t blocked these memories off, might find other reasons they don’t want to admit to having a trauma that might single them out, or exclude them from some kind of experience. In a highly competitive work setting people might be incentivized to play along and go through with trainings or experiences that do indeed trigger their past nightmares. Students might not want their peers to know they have something stressful going on at home, and therefor might not want to be the only kid to opt out.

So far, we haven’t quite gotten to the “Oh no… wait…” part of VR empathy machines. But I believe that we will soon. And I think when we get there, these are some of the elements that we’ll see at play.

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