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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.

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