Photo by the author
Stanford researcher Jeremy Bailenson and his colleagues at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) are transforming people into cows. Participants in their immersive virtual reality programs not only see themselves as bovines in a virtual mirror, but they also get virtually poked with cattle prods and eventually are helplessly dragged to the virtual slaughterhouse.
Superficially, this might seem a little bizarre, but there is a purpose: Bailenson hopes that by spending a few moments in a cow’s hooves, his subjects will gain a sense of empathy about what the animals experience. The implications, from his point of view, are huge: this empathy may translate into people eating less meat, which in turn translates into less energy consumption. By making climate change, an otherwise “slow, gradual, and nonlinear” process, seem more immediate and consequential, these experiments can alter human behavior.
Prior experiments in the same vein have shown positive results. Research subjects who virtually chopped down trees reported thinking about the experience and later altering their paper usage.
VHIL hopes to harness the emotive power of empathy, but that concept is actually nothing new: this is what farm animal advocates have already been doing for years.
Animal groups have adopted several tactics to create emotional understanding between humans and the animals they eat. On the most basic level, there is leafleting. Jam-packed with facts and photos that might make you feel ill (I still can’t shake the image of a half-decapitated cow I saw four years ago in a pamphlet in Chicago), each leaflet has its own purpose. Some are intended to shock, others to educate. But it’s hard to make a long-lasting connection to animals using statistics and still images.
Farm animal sanctuaries, which are a relatively recent concept born in the last thirty years or so, are probably the best tool that animal advocates currently have. Besides the obvious rescuing of animals in need, one of the primary motivations of many sanctuaries is to offer people a place to interact with animals that are otherwise hidden from public view, obscured by the factory walls of industrialized agriculture and the ag-gag laws that protect it.
This core principle of empathetic connection is revealed in the vocabulary of sanctuaries. Animals are “ambassadors.” They are “someone, not something.” By interacting with living farm animals, the hope is that people might recognize animals as individuals and not mere products, and change their behavior accordingly.
Becoming the actual animals themselves through immersive VR is simply the high-tech extension of this. Although VHIL’s ultimate goals may be more concerned with overall environmental issues rather than the animals themselves, the underlying philosophy is still the same. If you remember what it’s like to be led to the slaughterhouse, albeit in a virtual reality, you may remember that next time you are in the grocery store or out to dinner. And that is good for our world and for animals.
The results from VHIL’s cow experiment have not yet been analyzed. But as a former intern for a major farm animal sanctuary, I’ve watched people stand in front of a cow and have their assumptions about animals unravel in a very visible way. Though I haven’t been through the experiment and cannot comment on how the experience actually feels, I’d be shocked if it didn’t at least make participants question their eating habits. Maybe VR can even make you go vegan.