Can Virtual Reality Be Used to Tackle Racism?

Melissa Hogenboom, BBC News, November 27, 2013

Racism is an issue that still pervades many societies.


The issue is complicated by the fact that many biases are ingrained over long periods of time.

Scientists have now found that this ingrained racial bias was reduced when participants were immersed in a virtual body of a different race.

To test their implicit racism, a team led by Mel Slater at the University of Barcelona gave participants what’s called an implicit association test several days before the experiment. They were given the same test again after their experience in virtual reality.

It was only the participants who had been placed in a dark virtual body that showed this decrease.


Another unrelated study had similar results. A team found that when a dark rubber hand was stroked at the same time as the participant’s own (out of sight) hand was touched, implicit racism subsequently decreased. This work was led by Manos Tsakiris at Royal Holloway University of London.


Both teams say it’s promising that two separate experimental settings show this effect.


Prof Slater refers to virtual reality as an “empathy generating machine” to give people experiences they can’t have in any other way.

The question remains whether or not these findings could ever be applied in the real world.

Prof Slater believes they could: “If the effect is shown to be long-lasting this might provide tools for serious immersive games that attempt to foster pro-social behaviour and empathy,” he argues.

Prof Tsakiris agrees. He believes that achieving similar results could even be possible without an experimental set-up.

“It’s about the idea of sharing sensory experiences with people that might be different from you. This sharing–especially when there is some kind of synchronicity between people’s bodies–it can bring people closer together.


It is still unclear how long-lasting these effects would be. Prof Slater says this will be hard to pin down, but rolling the technology out into the real world in the first instance is a possibility.


This issue of prejudice is something Dal Babu feels he has experienced in the police force–an organisation he says should be representative of the society it aims to protect.

He was one of the UK’s top ethnic minority officers at the Metropolitan Police, and was critical of the lack of black and Asian recruits and how few were in senior positions.

“The irony and most commonly quoted phrase by Sir Robert Peel (founder of the Met Police) is that the public are the police and the police are the public,” he says.

But despite his efforts, the majority of senior police officers “remain stubbornly white”, Mr Babu adds.

It’s clear that there is no one simple way to tackle an issue as complex as racism. Until researchers find that reducing an innate bias can be reproduced and sustained, an awareness of it seems a crucial first step.

And while its use outside the lab may be some way off, scientists say that virtual reality provides a stepping stone towards increased empathy with others in the real world.


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