There is considerable enthusiasm for technologies that allow people to simulate an engagement with a physical world. It’s said that Virtual Reality will transform education, therapy, marketing, fitness, video games, and, of course, porn.

And some believe it’ll make us better people. As Chris Milk puts it in his TED talk, VR is “the ultimate empathy machine.” Perhaps it can be utilized to make us care about—and help—groups such as refugees, the homeless, and those with physical and mental impairments.

In a recent New York City fundraiser by the International Rescue Committee, people lined up to use headsets that let them experience the physical environment of a refugee camp in Lebanon. NPR quotes the executive producer of the IRC: “We can't bring donors or people to the field, but we bring the field to [them.] That's what's so great about VR; that's what makes it, I think, such an important tool for charities."

Another exhibit in Washington, set up by Médecins Sans Frontières, took a lower-tech approach. They had participants climb onto rafts (on dry land) and go through a series of ordeals, having to give up their possession one by one until they ended up, empty-handed, in front of faux refugee camps.

At Stanford, there are ongoing experiments with simulations that depict the process of getting evicted and becoming homeless. And there have long been disability simulations, in which participants sit in wheelchairs, or get blindfolded, or listen to intrusive sounds so as to simulate schizophrenia. You can slip into an “Age Suit” and experience the aches and pains of an 85-year-old. You can go on Amazon and buy “The Empathy Belly Pregnancy Simulator,” which promises to provide over 20 symptoms of pregnancy, including mild fetal kicking, increased perspiration, and “change in personal and sexual self-image.”  

Although all of these simulations have an unpleasant component, they are engaging—you don’t need to coerce people to use them; they will line up to try them out. If I were setting up a fundraiser, I’d be tempted to use VR as a perk for donors and an inducement for those on the fence. There is also the potential for real educational value, as VR could teach people about the physical environments of the people who need support. You probably learn a lot more by actually “walking through” a refugee camp through a VR simulation than by watching a movie or looking at a series of pictures. And if you were indifferent to the suffering of certain people, it’s conceivable that the VR experience might do something to combat this indifference.

But VR is far from the moral game changer that some make it out to be. In part, this is because it’s so focused on creating empathy, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, empathy is a poor guide to charitable giving. Who we feel empathy for is strongly influenced by irrelevant factors such as race and attractiveness and similarity, and our empathy often directs us in the wrong direction. Indeed, it can be exploited by unscrupulous actors to make the world worse. If you want to do good, you should focus on where your money will make the most positive difference, not on whose suffering you are prompted to feel more acutely.

But even putting this aside, it turns out that VR doesn’t actually help you appreciate what it’s like to be a refugee, homeless, or disabled. In fact, it can be dangerously misleading.

The problem is that these experiences aren’t fundamentally about the immediate physical environments. The awfulness of the refugee experience isn’t about the sights and sounds of a refugee camp; it has more to do with the fear and anxiety of having to escape your country and relocate yourself in a strange land. Homeless people are often physically ill, sometimes mentally ill, with real anxieties about their future. You can’t tap into that feeling by putting a helmet on your head.  Nobody thinks that going downtown without your wallet will make you appreciate poverty—why should these simulations do any better?

One specific limitation of VR involves safety and control.  During the debates over the interrogation practices of the United States during the Iraq war, some adventurous journalists and public figures asked to be waterboarded, to see what it was like. They typically reported that it was awful. But in fact their experience fell far short of how terrible actual waterboarding is, because part of what makes waterboarding so bad is that you get it when you don’t want it, by people who won’t stop when you ask them to. Safety and control transform unpleasant experiences into loads of fun, which is why we pay to play war games and have paintball battles, get frightened by shrieking maniacs in a haunted house, or engage in certain masochistic sexual activities.

Then there is duration. It’s not hard to try out certain short-term experiences, such as dealing with a crying baby for a few minutes, sitting alone in a closet, or having strangers gawk at you on the street. But you can’t extrapolate from these to learn what it’s like to be a single parent, a prisoner in solitary confinement, or a famous movie star. You can’t take an event of minutes and hours and generalize to months and years.  

Why not? One consideration is that some experiences are fine in the short-term, but wear you down over time. Solitary confinement is an obvious example here. Or consider subtle forms of sexual and racial discrimination—certain seemingly minor attacks on one’s dignity are easy to shrug off in any single instance, but if they are repeated and relentless, they can lead to anxiety and depression.

On the flip side, some experiences that are awful in the short term aren’t so bad in the long run; we habituate and adapt. This is why disability simulations do so poorly. In a scathing review of the experimental literature, Arielle Michal Silverman points out that these simulations “give the mistaken impression that the entirety of being disabled is marked by loss, frustration, and incompetence.” One study, for instance, asked subjects to wear blindfolds for a short period. When the blindfolds were removed, the subjects “… described their experience as being very difficult, frustrating, confusing, and frightening. In fact, a few students spontaneously uttered remarks such as “thank God I’m not blind” upon removing the blindfold. The students also projected their negative experience onto blind people. Compared with control students, blindfolded students estimated that blind people experience more fear, anger, confusion, and distress on a daily basis.”

And they were wrong. Blind people are actually pretty much as happy as sighted people. This is because they adapt to their blindness and because there’s more to their lives than their disability. Silverman points out that, at best, disability simulations offer the experience of becoming blind, becoming paralyzed, and so on.

Fortunately, there is a better version of VR that avoids some of these problems. Affordable, durable, and small enough to hold in one hand, these devices allow you to simulate not only the physical environment of individuals, but also their psychological experiences, and can do this for multiple people, moving forward and backward in time. They enable you to experience the most private experiences of others, both by triggering your own memories and by extending your imagination in radical ways.

These “empathy machines” are books, of course—as in novels and journalism and autobiography. When it comes to simulating physical experiences, they are not as powerful as certain alternatives. (If you want to know what it feels like to fall into a freezing lake, don’t open up a book; put a bag of ice into your bathtub and hop in.) And it might well be that language offers us a pale imitation of what another consciousness is like, especially when it comes to people whose experiences and beliefs are radically different from our own.

But when it comes to understanding the lives of others, nothing else comes close.