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How VR Can Combat Implicit Racism Through ‘Perspective-Taking’

The immersive design of VR technology may make it a potent tool in directly addressing the social problem of racial discrimination.


While we would like to think ourselves progressive and completely above something as petty as racial discrimination, the sad truth is that many of us are unconsciously, implicitly biased. This simply means that a majority of white people are unaware of their ingrained preference for white faces, or so say the results of Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test.

For years, scientists and socio-political groups have put forward a collective effort to fully combat racial bias. Now, recent studies suggest that the answer may actually lie in technology; specifically in VR applications.

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Immersive Technology

VR has the capacity to be both interactive and immersive. The technology is designed in such a way that any artificial environment it presents the user with is convincingly comprehensive. Because of this, the user is able to suspend disbelief and fully engage with the created environment, momentarily foregoing their real-world surroundings and embracing the virtual.

It is this very feature that has encouraged scientists to study the potential effects of immersive VR on implicit racial bias. In fact, ICREA Researcher Mel Slater, from the Institute of Neurosciences at the University of Barcelona, has led a group of researchers to further explore the full influence of immersive VR technology on a person’s unconscious behavior towards other races.

The results of their study, now published in the PLOS ONE journal, are extremely favorable and incredibly promising.

The Role of Social Identification

During human-to-human interaction, a person instinctively identifies as a member of a specific social group. This identification is based on strong features such as race or sex. With this instinctive assimilation comes a strong desire to belong to the social group they identify with, and this desire consequently affects interpersonal perceptions and behaviors.

Simply put, one reason for implicit racial bias is the unconscious need to be a part of a group. This unconscious need also translates into a knee-jerk reaction to consequently reject the people who aren’t part of your group.

A Matter of Perspective

How VR Can Combat Implicit Racism Through ‘Perspective-Taking’
Source: PLOS ONE journal
The scenario (A) The physical setup showing the participant wearing a full body motion capture suit and the head-mounted display (B) The participant sees a picture displayed on the front wall and her virtual (Black) partner to her right. (C) The participant is embodied as Black, her virtual (White) partner is to her right, and she can see herself and her partner in the mirror (D) The participant is embodied as White and can see herself and her (Black) partner in the mirror. The virtual interaction partners are the same apart from skin color and clothing, as described in Methods.

Slater’s study combated this bias by virtually assigning participants a new race. Dubbed ‘perspective-taking,’ the idea was to encourage people to temper their racial discrimination by imagining what it would be like to be that other person i.e., to have their skin color or their sex.

But through the use of immersive VR technology, there was no need for the participants to imagine. They were, essentially, given a new body instead. 32 white women were assigned either a black virtual body or a white virtual body, and then expected to interact with another virtual woman in a social setting.

At the end of the study, all participants were asked to take an implicit association test—a test that measures the extent of a person’s implicit racial bias. The participants who had been placed in a black virtual body had a lower implicit racial bias score compared to those who remained in a white avatar.

Walking a Mile in Their Shoes

The concept of ‘perspective-taking’ is a promising one, as it inspires a certain amount of empathy and understanding in a person towards people of a different social group. Coupled with the immersive capabilities of VR, it’s safe to assume that overall, virtual reality applications may indeed be used to address this social issue. By directly targeting a person’s social identification, this method of immersion may prove to be a huge step towards wiping out implicit—and explicit—racism for good.

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Gergana Mileva
the authorGergana Mileva
Based in Prague, CZ, Geri is a freelance journalist and writer, focusing on technology, finance, and marketing. If you have a story suggestion for Geri, you may contact her here.