Posted on December 19, 2014

When White People See Themselves With Black Skin, Something Interesting Happens

Anna Almendrala and Macrina Cooper-White, Huffington Post, December 15, 2014


Researchers from London and Barcelona teamed up to discuss their recent experiments on virtual reality and race in an opinion piece for the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, published Dec. 15. The researchers found that if people got the chance to physically experience their own body with different skin colors (or ages and sexes), their unconscious biases against other racial groups could be diminished.

This isn’t merely a question of changing mentality or perception. The experience of “living” in different skin triggers sensory signals in the brain that allow it to expand its understanding of what a body can look like. This can “cause people to change their attitudes about others,” wrote the study’s co-researcher, Professor Mel Slater, a part-time professor of virtual environments at the University College London and research professor at the University of Barcelona.

“Our methods and findings might help us understand how to approach phenomena such as racism, religious hatred, and gender inequality discrimination, since the methods offer the opportunity for people to experience the world from the perspective of someone different from themselves,” said Professor Manos Tsakiris of the Royal Holloway University of London in a press release about the study review.


The authors reflected on three different experiments they had conducted in the past. In the first, called the “Rubber Hand Illusion,” white participants were made to watch a dark-skinned rubber hand being stroked on a screen, while their own hand was stroked at the same time. This “synchronous stimulation” caused participants to feel as if they were inhabiting that rubber hand, or that it was a part of their body.

In the second experiment, called the “Enfacement Illusion,” white participants watched a video of a face of someone belonging to a different racial group than them. In the video, while the face was being stroked by a cotton bud, an experimenter was stroking the participant’s own face at the same time–again, making participants feel as if that “other” face was their own face.

In the final experiment, called “Full Body Illusions,” white female participants were asked to take a racial Implicit Association Test (IAT)–a computerized task which can reveal unconscious racial biases. Then, the women put on a virtual headset that gave them the illusion of being in an avatar’s body, which was either white, black or purple (see video below). Afterwards, the women took the racial bias test again.

The women embodied in the black avatars became less biased against black people in their test scores. The women who embodied white or purple avatars showed no change.