Walking in other people’s digital shoes could back-fire

They say you should walk a mile in a person’s shoes before judging them. Virtual reality technology offers this possibility by allowing us to control a digital representation of another person. Unfortunately, the first ever investigation of racial perspective-taking in an immersive virtual environment has found that assuming a different racial identity leads to increased racial bias, not less.

Victoria Groom and colleagues invited 98 participants, half of whom were of White ethnicity, to view a photograph of either a Black or White person of the same gender as themselves, and to imagine they were that person. Next the participants donned a virtual reality headset which transported them to an empty room where they were interviewed for a job, still playing the role of that other person. Crucially, half the participants could see their new identity in a mirror in the virtual room, and as they answered some introductory questions they spent at least a minute observing their adopted selves in the mirror.

After this brief immersive experience, White participants who’d assumed a new identity as a Black person, and seen their new identity in the mirror, showed increased implicit racial bias, as compared with the White participants who’d embodied the identity of a White person. Black participants too, showed increased implicit bias against Black people after embodying the virtual identity of another Black person. For the participants who didn’t see their new digital selves in the virtual mirror, there were no effects on racial bias.

Implicit bias was measured using the implicit association test, which records the ease with which people associate categories (such as positive words and African American names) by assigning those categories to the same or different response keys. Explicit racial bias was measured but was unaffected by the experiment.

The finding that embodying a Black person in a virtual environment can increase racial bias may seem counter-intuitive at first, but it’s possible that the effect occurred due to an established phenomenon known as “stereotype activation”, in which racially-relevant stimuli can activate negative stereotypes, even if those stereotypes aren’t endorsed. This would explain why the Black participants also showed increased implicit bias, and why explicit bias was unaffected in participants of both ethnicities.

“Those who have championed digital technologies as a means to render race flexible and racism obsolete maybe disheartened by these results,” the researchers said. However, they cautioned that their results are far from conclusive, especially given the brevity of the immersive experience studied in this experiment.

ResearchBlogging.orgGroom, V., Bailenson, J., & Nass, C. (2009). The influence of racial embodiment on racial bias in immersive virtual environments. Social Influence, 1-18 DOI: 10.1080/15534510802643750

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.