Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


avatars

(PHOTO: KLEYMAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Racist? Virtual Reality Could Fix That

• June 06, 2013 • 5:00 AM

(PHOTO: KLEYMAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research finds a virtual-reality experiment in which you experience yourself as a person of color reduces deep-seated prejudice.

It’s time to update the classic rejoinder “Walk a mile in my shoes.” Thanks to virtual-reality technology, people prone to stereotyping—which means basically all of us—can take a far more immersive, and apparently effective, journey toward empathy and understanding.

Forget the footwear: The new invitation is “Spend some time in my skin.”

A research team led by Mel Slater of the University of Barcelona and Tabitha Peck (now at Duke University) reports that the virtual experience of living in a dark-skinned body “significantly reduced implicit racial bias against dark-skinned people.” “Becoming” a person of color, even for a few minutes, seems to short-circuit our deep-seated prejudices.

The experience of “seeing” yourself as black might provide such a jolt that it has a long-lasting impact.

Peck and her colleagues describe their study in a paper just published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. The participants were 60 University of Barcelona students, all “light-skinned females.”

All began by taking an Implicit Association Test designed to uncover ingrained, largely unconscious racial prejudice. A few days later, they returned to the lab and put on a “head-mounted display” and a tight-fitting Velcro suit equipped with sensors to capture bodily motion.

This set-up gave them the illusion that they were standing in the center of a hallway, looking at a mirror on one wall. For the next five minutes, they were instructed to explore this virtual environment, look at the mirror, and move their virtual body.

Thanks to the motion-capture suit, when they moved, their “body” in the virtual mirror did so simultaneously. This provided the uncanny, and often unsettling, illusion that they were looking at themselves. (One-quarter of the participants served as a control group; in their case, the mirror-reflection body moved independently of their own.)

The mirrored reflections were either dark-skinned, light-skinned, or purple-skinned.

The participants then remained in this virtual world for another six-and-a-half minutes while “12 virtual human female characters, six light- and six dark-skinned, walked past them one by one.” Finally, they emerged back into the real world and immediately took the IAT test once again.

The results: Those who had “seen” themselves as dark-skinned showed a distinct drop-off in implicit racial bias. Those who had experienced themselves as light-skinned registered a very small increase in bias. Participants who viewed themselves as a purple figure, and those in the control group, saw no significant change in their scores.

The researchers admit they have no idea how long-lived this reduction in prejudice might hold. Back in the real world, things may revert to normal quite quickly; on the other hand, the experience of “seeing” yourself as black might provide such a jolt that it has a long-lasting impact. There’s no way of knowing at this point.

Nevertheless, this would seem to be a promising way of dislodging some ingrained prejudices. To paraphrase the great cartoonist Walt Kelly, we have seen the “other,” and he is us.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.