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Barcelona project uses VR to improve empathy for victims of abuse

Virtual reality study in city’s Hospital Clínic helps convicted abusers to experience the fear felt by the targets of their anger



22 February 2018 06:40 PM


ACN | Barcelona

Virtual reality can help the perpetrators of domestic violence increase their empathy for their victims. The combination of VR goggles and movement sensors are enough to put the abuser in the place of a woman being harassed by another man, even to the point of physical assault. Thus, real life abusers can get an idea of the fear caused by their anger and rage.

Such a VR experiment is part of an ongoing study by Barcelona’s Hospital Clínic, which has just been formally tested on a score of men convicted of domestic abuse. In the past two years, a total of 200 men have participated in the project, many subject to alternative sentences to incarceration, on the orders of a judge and under the supervision of the Catalan justice department.

Violence against others is associated with a lack of empathy and the difficulty of aggressors to put themselves in the place of their victims. A number of studies show that violent people find it hard to identify emotions like fear and anger, although there are some discrepancies in the findings due to the ethical problems that each study presents.

In the VR episode that recreates domestic violence, the man is put in the place of a woman in a room. Another man arrives and begins to shout at the woman, criticizing her physical appearance and threatening to take away her mobile phone. The man gradually approaches the woman in a threatening manner, terrifying the victim, before seizing her mobile phone and violently throwing it to the floor.

While the graphics are not of optimal quality, most of the men who take part in the experiment are able to put themselves in the woman’s place. Surveys are carried out with the subjects before and after the simulation, with most men reporting that the experience has an impact on them. Some of the men say that they felt threatened by the male avatar and were concerned about being physically assaulted.

This pioneering study in Barcelona is under the coordination of the ICREA research program at the August Pi i Sunyer biomedical research institute (IDIBAPS), with the participation of Event Lab from the Psychology Faculty of Barcelona University. A study published in the 'Scientific Reports' journal was based on an experiment with 20 men convicted of domestic abuse, against a control sample of 19 men who had no record of violence.


  • Barcelona project uses VR to improve empathy for victims of abuse (by IDIBAPS)

  • Barcelona project uses VR to improve empathy for victims of abuse (by IDIBAPS)