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Virtual Reality Experiments Are Creating Body Swaps To Put A White Person In A Black Body

Star Trek fans in costume during the Destination Star Trek in London. Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images

Scientists have used body swapping experiments, illusions induced through virtual reality, to make white people feel they are inhabiting black bodies and adults feel like they have children’s bodies.

Those who experienced having black skin had their unconscious biases against black people diminished.

And adults who felt as if they had children’s bodies believed that aspects of themselves were more childlike after they experienced the illusion

A paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences shows the results of the experiments have important implications for approaching race and gender discrimination.

Negative attitudes about others are often formed at a young age and they’re thought to remain stable throughout adulthood.

However, few studies have examined whether these social biases can change.

Professor Manos Tsakiris of the Royal Holloway University of London and Professor Mel Slater of University College London and the University of Barcelona have developed ways to expose people to illusions which give them a body different from their own in respect to race, age or gender.

“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,” says Professor Tsakiris.

“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 there is no simple “cure” for racism or other biases, “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,” says Professor Slater.

Light-skinned Caucasian participants took part in a between-groups experiment where they occupied a white (A) or black (B) body in a virtual environment. They could see their body from a first-person perspective when they looked down, as well as in a virtual mirror (see Figure 1C, ii). Two control groups were also included — in these conditions, participants either had no virtual body (C), or the body was of an unnatural purple color (D) to control for general dissimilarity to their own skin. Participants’ racial biases were measured before and after embodiment. Participants who embodied a black avatar showed a decrease in their implicit biases against black individuals, which was significantly greater than for those who embodied a white avatar. Error bars indicate standard error of the mean. Image: Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Maister et al.

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