Can Virtual Simulations Teach a Human Skill Like Empathy?

Aug 05, 2019

Can you learn empathy through interacting with a computer—even though, by definition, the skill requires understanding and sympathizing with real people?

When Kathleen Marek first heard about virtual simulations designed to help teachers be more responsive and even empathetic to students in distress, she was skeptical. “I thought it was interesting that it was computer-based,” says Marek, who works as the mental health program coordinator for Santa Clara Unified School District in California, “but it was sort of ironic.”

Yet when she spoke with teachers, she found many of them were receptive to the idea.

“This one math teacher said, ‘I think about interpersonal interactions with students that I’ve had and I wonder how much of what I said led to whatever happened’”—especially if it was bad, Marek recalls.

The teacher’s biggest fear was fumbling a sensitive conversation and accidentally making things worse, so she wanted the chance to practice empathic conversations in a safe, controlled space. “I thought, of course, that’s genius,” Marek says.

Earlier this year, the Santa Clara district held a one-day training for hundreds of teachers and support staff using simulation software from a company called Kognito, which specializes in creating one-on-one virtual conversations around health-related topics, such as bullying, suicide prevention and substance abuse.

The company’s simulations make use of virtual students and role playing techniques. It’s just one approach to creating challenging scenarios for educators that test not only their decision making abilities, but their capacity for building trust and relationships with others. The big question, of course, is how—and also, is it effective?

A New Perspective

Empathy is not a singular concept, explains Glenn Albright, Kognito’s co-founder and director of research. It’s divided into two parts with different meanings. Emotional empathy is the definition we often think of. It’s the natural ability to share how another person is feeling—to get happy when a friend shares her recent engagement, or to feel sad when others are crying.

Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, takes more conscious effort. It’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, or understanding why a friend or student is feeling sad, even if you’re not feeling it yourself.

“Both [emotional] empathy and cognitive empathy increase your ability to communicate a relationship,” Albright says.

When virtual simulations attempt to build more empathy, they do it by presenting scenarios that are often emotionally fraught, stressful or challenging—and maybe a little dramatic. The goal is to provoke an emotional response in participants and give them a taste of what that situation can feel like from someone else’s perspective.

Over the decades, simulations were designed to train humans to perform specific procedures or tasks that were too expensive, dangerous or impractical to do on a regular basis, such as performing complicated surgery or piloting planes. Today, simulations are trying to cover fuzzier, “soft” skills that do not always have clear-cut answers or steps—such as education and empathy.

“I’m not going to say it’s always successful,” says Andrea Stevenson Won, an assistant professor at Cornell University and director of the Virtual Embodiment Lab, which researches these topics. But she adds that they have shown promise in areas beyond specific rote tasks—like compassion. In one study, participants who identified themselves as naturally self-critical used a virtual reality simulation to comfort a child avatar who was upset. Later, they became the child avatar themselves, and heard their own comforting words played back from a different perspective, an experience that taught them to be more compassionate to themselves.

“You want to think about what VR can do that you can’t do in other media,” Stevenson Won says. Because it’s a controlled environment, “you can repeat actions over and over, you can look at your own actions and reflect on them, and you can look at other people’s actions from another perspective.”

Providing that first person perspective is central to Ed Leadership Sims, which creates professional development simulations for school leaders. These programs are not as high-tech; they run on a computer browser and feature video clips of actors who perform scenarios that an administrator may encounter—such as a recalcitrant teacher, a budget shortfall and a challenging PTA, or a student who comes out as transgender. Users often work in small groups and choose from a list of pre-populated text responses, which shapes how the scenario’s next event unfolds.

“This isn’t designed to give them a crystal ball, ‘If you do this, this will happen,’” says CEO Ken Spero. “The goal here is critical thinking.” A secondary goal is to provoke debate and discussion. By taking on the role of a principal or other administrator, the hope is that participants reflect on their past bosses—and even themselves—when tough decisions get made, as a way to build cognitive empathy.

To add complexity, certain details are intentionally left out, allowing group members to make different assumptions. And obvious answers are often absent, forcing the group to do the best they can. Naturally, conflicts arise and participants often report feeling stressed, says Spero. It may be unpleasant in the moment, but it’s a deliberate attempt to trigger emotions and make the experience more memorable—based on research that suggests that emotional events are more likely to move into one’s long-term memory.

“The simulations do a good job at putting them in the hot seat and making them own the scenario from the get-go,” says Tyler Grundmeyer, an associate professor of educational leadership at Drake University in Iowa, who uses the simulations with the aspiring administrators in his courses. “I don’t know that you’re going to get the realism or the empathy without really making it personal for them.”

Dialogue options in a bullying teacher scenario in Ed Leadership Sims. (Image: Ed Leadership Sims)

Take the recalcitrant teacher scenario, one of Grundmeyer’s favorites. A well-regarded teacher comes to the principal—who the participant or group is role playing—complaining of a disruptive, bullying coworker, who blames students and other teachers and won’t take constructive feedback. At a faculty meeting, things get heated. Do you interrupt the meeting? Talk to either of the teachers alone? Do you follow up quickly or let things play out? As participants discover, if you don’t thread the carefullest needle, the well-regarded teacher who filed the complaint leaves the school.

“Students come back frustrated,” says Grundmeyer, who typically conducts a class discussion after groups complete the simulation. “They say, ‘We were going to talk to her but we didn’t yet.’ They’re frazzled when she leaves, because she was one of the best teachers left. That’s real.”

When students go through a simulation, Grundmeyer notices them weighing how their decisions impact others and whether their actions will help them succeed. But he also watches as they learn to navigate groups: both the virtual ones in the scenario and the real-life partners they need buy-in from to make decisions. “It’s bigger than empathy,” he says. “It’s about them shaping their leadership platform and philosophy when they get that opportunity.”

Developing Emotional Intelligence

Kognito’s use of animated virtual agents instead of actors is different, but the general idea is similar. Scenarios still involve choosing dialogue options from a list—some nurturing, others more blunt—and receiving feedback.

In addition to building trust and empathy, the company also aims to teach so-called “gatekeeper skills,” or the ability to identify distress, talk meaningfully about concerns and motivate students to speak with a counselor, says Kognito’s Albright.

“This virtual human—let’s say a student—is programmed with memory, personality, emotion, and it will react like a real student in psychological distress,” Albright explains. Virtual students will remember if you’ve said something judgemental earlier in the conversation, and appreciate attempts to build trust and empathize. After interactions, a virtual coach dispenses feedback on choices and occasionally thought bubbles appear, providing a window into what students are thinking.

To teach these context-specific skills, such as building trust with students, a simulation like Kognito relies on techniques like motivational interviewing, an intervention which is used to help prepare another person to make a change in their life—in this case, sitting down with a mental health counselor for the first time. “It’s a very respectful way of speaking with people,” explains Albright. Teachers might select open-ended questions from a list of choices to get students to share, and then reflect back what the student said to show they’re listening. “We begin to feel comfortable, and that’s exactly what happens in these simulations,” he says.

An example of virtual agents in a Kognito simulation. (Image: Kognito)

In one simulation, a middle school student named Charlie shows early signs of distress in English class. Once an avid talker, she’s become withdrawn and stopped participating. Over the course of the conversation, you learn that she may be experiencing trauma. By the end of it, you can create some accommodations to help her in class and refer her to the school counselor.

These types of conversations can be very effective, says Marek, the mental health program coordinator. “It was hugely impactful because teachers were realizing, ‘I’m making assumptions that my class is the most important thing to this child and clearly they have other things happening,’” she says. “I think [teachers] want to have empathy, but I think they don’t know how to necessarily reach those kids.”

Kognito’s simulations attempt to put both emotional and cognitive empathy at play. When virtual students like Charlie share difficult parts of their lives, you might feel a pang of sadness without even thinking about it. Reading her thought bubbles might provide insights into why she’s responding the way she is. “We’re aiming at increasing both empathies,” Albright says. “If you and I start to understand what people are really thinking as opposed to what they’re saying, we develop more of an emotional intelligence in terms of communicating with that individual effectively.”

That’s the ideal, anyway. Whether or not independent research bears this out is still up for debate. Studies on medical students conducting simulated patient visits have shown some success, particularly in developing cognitive empathy. But research with pre-service teachers last decade using a less robust simulation didn’t do much to get participants to identify with the virtual characters.

In fact, there may be a limit to what simulations are capable of when it comes to these types of skills. It’s a robust area for research, but not enough has been conducted to tell.

“Mostly there is evidence these techniques can help with the more tactical, cognitive aspects of social interaction,” says Jonathan Gratch, the director for virtual humans research at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. “I don’t know that there’s good evidence it helps with the socio-emotional part of it.” That is, if a person is afraid of, say, speaking in public—or in the case of Marek’s teacher, speaking candidly with a student—simulations can teach tactics to help regulate those emotions in the moment, though research is less clear on whether they can teach empathy skills in general.

Simulations are also an imperfect substitute for in-person interaction, says Gratch, because when we’re talking with another person, our behavior can change. The confidence you feel in a controlled scenario might not carry over to a real life situation. “Many people want to be too accommodating,” he notes. “They may not feel that kind of emotional pressure to be accomodating to a virtual character, but they might when they are sitting down with a person. Their defenses crumble.”

However, he adds, it certainly can’t hurt to practice.


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