As the eLearning industry seeks to revitalize sexual harassment prevention and diversity training, immersive harassment prevention training shimmers like a silver bullet. The appeal of virtual reality simulations is their demonstrated ability to enhance the power of storytelling and perspective taking—two key approaches to creating respectful, inclusive workplace cultures.

Recent research, though, suggests a darker side to using immersive training to drive behavior change. Before L&D teams take an expensive leap into these uncharted waters, they would be wise to closely examine the pros and cons.

As noted in “The State of Sexual Harassment Training in the #MeToo Era,” content hasn’t changed much over the decades, despite both legal changes—affecting how harassment is defined—and technological changes affecting the format and delivery of eLearning content. In “5 Novel Suggestions to Improve Sexual Harassment Training,” Learning Solutions presented suggestions to bring elements of culture change and bias awareness into harassment training. In this article, Learning Solutions explores the possibility of using immersive (virtual reality) training to foster empathy and perspective taking as a way to promote greater workplace inclusion and respect.

Heightened engagement can lead to behavior change

Realistic stories engage learners

A good story engages learners through characters they care about and a compelling plot. The stories can be fictional, but actual examples featuring people who work in the same industry as trainees can dramatically increase authenticity—and engagement.

In harassment prevention training, this could look like an example that Elizabeth Tippett, an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, cited in her content analysis. In this video, restaurant workers shared their harassment stories. Restaurant managers then described how they would respond to similar situations, and a lawyer provided feedback on each manager’s response. “That was one of the most compelling trainings that I saw—I think because it seemed realistic.” Tippett said. “It was addressing scenarios that would actually come up for people in this workplace, and it was very engaging.”

VR offers an even more realistic option—inviting trainees to interact with the characters in the stories as virtual participants.

Perspective taking and behavior change

Early VR studies show that participants in educational simulations show short-term positive changes in behavior. One example was an educational training on deforestation and paper use. Some participants read about failure to recycle paper goods and the impact on global forests. Others participated in an immersive experience where they cut down a virtual tree. Afterward, both groups took a survey. Then, as they were leaving, researchers “accidentally” bumped into them, spilling some water. The participants in the virtual tree-cutting were more likely to indicate pro-recycling intentions in their surveys and use fewer paper towels to clean up the spill.

While this and other studies show short-term behavior changes, no studies have yet tracked whether the changes stick and for how long. And, importantly, these studies have addressed issues where participants had little or nothing at stake.

As stakes increase, results become troubling

In his newest book, Experience on Demand, VR pioneer Jeremy Bailenson cautions against overdoing immersion. Some types of emotional experiences, he says, can be overwhelming or even damaging with the heightened impact that VR offers. Playing the part of a violent assassin in a typical video game can be stimulating, for example. But immersing oneself in the game and feeling as if one has personally caused harm to another being (even if it’s not human) is exponentially more emotional and potentially damaging.

Bailenson’s warnings dovetail with research on perspective taking, an approach to building empathy that entails observing a situation or experience from alternative points of view. It’s often described as the “glue” that binds communities or the foundation of successful relationships—but, depending on the level of threat a participant feels, perspective taking can also function as “gasoline” that fuels stereotypes and prejudice, according to researcher Jason Pierce and his coauthors.

In “From Glue to Gasoline: How Competition Turns Perspective Takers Unethical,” Pierce’s team characterizes perspective taking as a relational amplifier: In situations where perspective takers share a cooperative relationship, seeing one another’s perspective heightens empathy and enhances collaboration. But when a relationship is seen as competitive or threatening, access to the other’s perspective is more sinister: “In competitive contexts, perspective taking draws attention to conflicting interests and to how a competitor’s actions may threaten one’s own self-interest,” the team wrote. Gaining an understanding of the competitor’s interests and behavior led participants “to prophylactically engage in unethical behavior to prevent themselves from being exploited.” Their study posed relatively low-stakes (and imaginary) scenarios where participants negotiated with or imagined the behavior of fictional business competitors.

Two studies conducted in Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) also found that a perceived threat can cause attempts to inspire empathy and foster inclusiveness to backfire, instead reinforcing negative stereotypes—and amplifying negative behaviors.

Perspective taking or stereotype activation?

Early VR research explored the effects on participants of seeing themselves as members of an “outgroup,” such as another race. “Because the experience of viewing oneself embodied as a different person is far more visceral than simply imagining oneself as that person, viewing oneself as an avatar of a different race could produce an even greater overlap in the concepts of self and other than occurs with implicit and explicit perspective taking,” Victoria Groom and her coauthors wrote in “The influence of racial embodiment on racial bias in immersive virtual environments.”

The researchers wondered whether this heightened perspective taking would arouse empathy and lead to positive behavior changes—or activate stereotypes and lead to negative behavior changes. They found that participants inhabiting black avatars demonstrated greater levels of implicit racial bias favoring whites than those inhabiting white avatars; participants who imagined a model of either race but who were not part of an immersive simulation showed less bias. The team concluded, “The results of the current study suggest that the immersiveness of IVEs (immersive virtual experiences) encourages stereotype activation to the point that it overwhelms any positive effects of perspective taking.”

Perceived threat changes behavior

A 2016 VHIL study, “Virtually Old: Embodied perspective taking and the reduction of ageism under threat,” by Soo Youn Oh and others, looked at bias, group identity, and the effect of immersive perspective taking on feelings and behavior toward members of an identity group versus toward outsiders. An “ingroup” can be based on race, gender (or gender identity), religion, age—or it can more loosely consist of supporters of an athletic team or students at a school or university.

“While prejudice is often conceptualized as a fixed attitude one holds toward an outgroup, studies show that intergroup attitudes heavily depend on the intergroup context,” the researchers wrote—adding that perceived intergroup threat is a primary driver of negative attitudes and behaviors.

Oh’s study looked at age-related bias and stereotypes. They imposed a mild outgroup threat on some participants: The “threat” group read articles describing the “burden” that elderly citizens would create for younger workers, while control group participants read neutral articles on changing age demographics. Participants also played a virtual ball game with two elderly avatars. “Threat” group participants were told that the other players felt “cold” toward younger adults; those avatars threw the ball to the participants’ younger avatars fewer times. In the “no threat” condition, the elderly players were said to regard younger and older adults equally; these avatars also tossed the ball more often to the younger players.

Participants answered questions after the simulations, and the perceived threat was a strong differentiator. “When under threat, participants consistently showed negative attitudes toward the elderly,” the researchers wrote. “Being ostracized by two ostensibly older avatars led to negative attitudes toward the elderly, even outside of the virtual interaction. These findings resonate with research that demonstrates that virtual interactions can have powerful real-world implications.”

Immersive diversity training? Proceed with caution

The sample sizes in these and other studies were small, and behavior observations occurred over short time frames: immediately after the immersive activity and up to a week later. Even so, they point to the possibility that immersive VR experiences could affect behavior in undesirable ways.

The #MeToo movement, the infamous Google memo, and the rise of hate crimes indicate that attempts to increase workplace diversity are likely to feel threatening to some employees. Overt policies that aim to increase the number of female and minority C-suite executives or delineate expectations that rank-and-file workers exhibit sensitivity to differences—and to colleagues who embody those differences—can fuel perceptions of threat. That is even more true if perspective-taking exercises focus narrowly; the perspectives of groups that feel threatened must always be included in perspective-taking training.

It’s unrealistic to view immersive training as a panacea that can turn fear of difference or even implicit or explicit bias into empathy and collegiality. Pairing storytelling and perspective taking with immersive simulation creates a powerful training tool. But L&D teams are advised to examine the pros and cons of immersive harassment prevention training—and to adopt this approach cautiously, with full awareness of the potential harms as well as benefits.