virtual bodyswapping
December 16, 2014

Could Virtual Bodyswapping Help End Racism And Discrimination?

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

“Walk a mile in my shoes,” used to be only a figure of speech. But now, it’s more of a reality.

Well, a virtual reality.

Tapping into the human brain’s natural ability to collect information from all five senses, researchers from Spain and the UK were able to simulate what it’s like inhabiting the body of a person from another race, gender or ethnic group in an effort to change people’s views on race and discrimination.

The study, published in the December 15 edition of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, details how they were able to conduct virtual bodyswapping experiments which made one group of people feel like they were inhabiting the bodies of another.

Tsakiris, Slater and their colleagues explained that they conducted several experiments in which volunteers were “exposed to bodily illusions that induced ownership over a body different to their own with respect to gender, age, or race.” They found a link between virtual placement in a so-called outgroup body and a significant reduction in implicit biases against that group (i.e. the conscious biases of white people against blacks diminished afterwards).

They suggest that these changes take place through a self-association process that begins in the physical domain as an increase in perceived similarity between the study participant and the outgroup into which they are being placed. This self-association then extends into the conceptual domain, leading to the rise of positive self-like generalizations and associations to that outgroup which can help undo long-held biases against different groups of people.

The negative attitudes towards others that can lead to discrimination are often formed at a very early age, the researchers explained, and are believed to remain fairly consistent throughout adulthood. However, some previous studies had investigated if these implicit social biases could be altered, which led to Tsakiris and Slater to develop a method to induce the virtual ownership of a different body type used during these recent experiments.

“Our findings are important as they motivate a new research area into how self-identity is constructed and how the boundaries between 'ingroups' and 'outgroups' might be altered,” Professor Tsakiris said in a statement. “More importantly though, from a societal point of view, 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.”

While Professor Slater noted that there is no simple “cure” for racism, sexisms, ageism, or other forms of bias, he said that “the research shows that integration of different sensory signals can allow the brain to update its model of the body and cause people to change their attitudes about others.”

“Generally using these techniques, it is possible to give two sides of a conflict an experience of what it is like to be a member of the 'other side.’ This should help to build empathy,” he added in comments made via email to Anna Almendrala and Macrina Cooper-White of The Huffington Post. “The fact that two groups independently had similar findings makes me confident that this was not just a fluke result.”

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