Eco-experiment turns humans into virtual cattle

A pioneering new virtual reality experiment transformed human volunteers into cows. Researchers hope that by exploiting the power of empathy they can make us better guardians of the planet.

One of the first moral lessons humans learn is the art of putting themselves in another person’s shoes. ‘How would you like it if someone did that to you?’ parents ask their misbehaving children. ‘How would you feel?’

Now, scientists at Stanford University in California have come up with a way to turn the metaphor into reality – or at least, virtual reality. Using sophisticated simulated reality headsets and a specially written computer programme, researchers were able to give volunteers the feeling of being inside the bodies of cows.

Crawling on all fours, the volunteers saw their new ‘bovine’ bodies in a virtual mirror. They were then led around by a virtual farmer, struck with a simulated cattle prod and finally driven into an abattoir to be slaughtered.

Many of the volunteers were shocked by the experience. ‘I began to feel like I was the cow’ and ‘that I was going to die,’ said one. ‘That last prod felt really sad.’ Despite knowing that they were in a simulation, and despite the obvious artificiality of their virtual ‘cow’ selves, the participants really felt what a cow might feel.

Virtual reality technology is impressive, and getting more so all the time, but what really drives experiments like this is empathy: the remarkable imaginative ability that humans have to feel other people’s pain; to care about the happiness of people other than ourselves.

Empathy is one of humanity’s defining characteristics, rooted deep in our evolutionary history. It is what allowed early humans to band together in family groups, then tribes, then cities and nations.

Now, scientists want to use virtual reality and the power of empathy to help save the world. By forcing humans to empathise with cows, for example, they could teach us to eat less meat, which would help to slow down climate change. Criminals could be made to empathise with their victims. Consumers in the West could empathise with poor producers in the developing world. The further the horizons of our empathy spread, the thinking goes, the more we will learn to sacrifice our own interests for the good of others.

Thoughts and feelings

The philosopher David Hume believed that empathy was the basis for all moral behaviour. If that is the case, the extension of empathy to cows or birds or people on the other side of the world can only be a good thing.

But others think empathy distorts morality rather than enhancing it. Our feelings, these rationalists argue, are crude and simplistic guides to moral action – changeable and unfair. Moral behaviour should be directed by calmly thought out moral laws, not surges of sentiment.

You Decide

  1. Which is a better guide to action: logic or emotion?
  2. Should you feel the same amount of empathy for all humans, no matter who they are?


  1. Design a poster showing three moral lessons you can learn from a video game – any game or combination of games you like. The lessons can be serious or funny.
  2. If you could design a virtual reality experiment to encourage empathy, what would it be? Write a brief article explaining your idea.

Some People Say...

“Compassion makes humans weaker, not stronger.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t think I would ever feel like I was a cow!
Perhaps not – but the chances are you have already had the experience of seeing through someone else’s virtual eyes.
How so?
Modern video games may not be as sophisticated as virtual reality, but they still give players a strong sense of connection with virtual avatars. If a virtual reality programme can make humans feel like cows, a video game could surely make players identify with the characters they play.
Some parents find this a worrying idea. If their child has spent all morning chainsawing virtual aliens, or shooting virtual policemen, what might they do in the real world that afternoon? The evidence for any behavioural change, however, is inconclusive.

Word Watch

Bovine, from the Latin bos, means ‘cow-like’. Other animals also have their own adjectives from Latin: ‘equine’ for horses, ‘ovine’ for sheep, ‘canine’ for dogs, ‘lupine’ for wolves, ‘vulpine’ for foxes, and many more.
Evolutionary history
Biologists were long puzzled by the evolution of empathy. If genes are ‘selfish’ – only interested in making more copies of themselves – why encourage behaviour that harms the self to help others? The answer is that when many individuals share a set of genes, behaviour that helps the group helps pass those genes on, even if the individual suffers.
Band together
Chimpanzees are our closest relatives, and are highly sociable in family groups. But if chimpanzees are exposed to too many strangers of the same species, they will start killing each other. Humans on the other hand can tolerate city living – the presence of millions of strangers – a remarkable testament to our empathic capacity.

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