In the past year, I’ve seen a few people on Twitter and the general blogo-sphere discussing the possibility of Virtual Reality decreasing racial biases and, in general, bigotry. I myself have been interested in this idea, but, naturally, am quite skeptical and decided to do my own digging. Below, I briefly present my findings.
Let’s start with how stereotypes form. There’s a mix of circumstances and biology at work. As one would imagine, stereotypes form based on surroundings: family, environment, media, etc. If parents are racist, there’s a good chance their offspring will mimic these behaviors. In Walter Lippmann’s research published in his book “Public Opinion”, he noted how stereotypes come from this cultural exposure. As a side note, Lippmann was the researcher who coined the term stereotype in its current context.
In addition to the learned aspect, human brains were built to categorize the world around them: “it’s cognitively efficient — once you have categorized you no longer need to consider information about each individual member of the group [and] it’s a way to feel better about yourself; we think our groups (ingroups) are better than other groups (outgroups)- the Ingroup Favorability Bias.” In Leonard Mlondinow’s bestseller “How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior”, he notes that “research suggest that we have neurons in our prefrontal cortex that respond to categories…categorization is a strategy our brains use to more efficiently process information.”
So, can we use VR to crush people’s explicit biases or re-wire the brain to avoid this implicit categorization?
According to a study at Penn State, biases based on appearance and gender in the real world follow people into the virtual world. According to Franklin Waddell, the graduate student working on the project, “It doesn’t matter if you have an ugly avatar or not, if you’re a man, you’ll still receive about the same amount of help, [but] if you are a woman and operate an unattractive avatar, you will receive significantly less help.” Biases based on appearance persist in virtual reality.
You might note that this study only placed participants into a VR environment similar to the real world and didn’t change the environment in order to force people to get rid of their stereotypes.
However, a recent study did just that — it put participants in VR with different skin tones, then had them take an implicit association test (IAT) which provided a quantitative measure of their subconscious’ implicit biases. In previous studies “[i]mplicit association tests have … revealed white people tend to dehumanize black faces.” However, when placed in the VR experiment, “white women who spent time in black bodies came out with a more positive IAT score.” The study showed that subconscious biases can be manipulated and changed by virtual reality. Could this be used in schools as a method to prevent racial biases forming? Obviously, further studies need to be done to see how long this change in IAT score lasts after the experience.
This also shows how Ingroup Favorability Bias can be decreased by VR tests, which would be very helpful in attempts to eliminate implicit biases. As Mlodinow puts it, “we find people more likeable merely because we are associated with them in some way … [this] has a natural corollary: we also tend to favor in-group members … and we evaluate their work and products more favorably than we might otherwise, even if we think we are treating everyone equally.” Being able to decrease this implicit bias would be a huge step in the right direction.
So, it appears that in some cases, VR can help change the way our brains categorize people. However, one should be aware that there are certain cases in which VR can reinforce biases.
By developing seemingly innocuous content, developers can accidentally cause prejudices to increase. For example, charities are using VR to show potential donors a first-hand view of poverty. However, “[v]ideos of starving African children may win donations, but rely on a simplistic view of poverty and healthy dose of white-saviour complex to do so.” Remember the cultural exposure Lippmann found to cause stereotypes? VR has the possibility to act as it. Having the ability to put people in others shoes is great, but developers must be careful not to over-generalize scenarios, countries, groups of people, or really anything.
These are simply my cursory findings on the VR/social science landscape in relation to implicit biases. There is still much research to be done, but it will be interesting to see how VR as a tool against racism can progress.