Therese Holmqvist and Dario Krpan consider whether virtual reality could help to reduce police violence against ethnic minorities.
The recent high-profile killings of black people in the US by police officers, including the brutal murder of George Floyd, has brought to the forefront the violence that is sometimes inflicted on ethnic minorities by police. Statistics show that unarmed black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than unarmed white Americans. In the UK, as in the US, black people are more likely to be stopped and searched and to experience force in their interactions with the police. Here we consider whether technology can help reduce instances of violence towards ethnic minorities.
The problem with implicit bias
While explicit racial prejudice is largely deemed unacceptable in today’s society, most of us still hold unconscious attitudes and biases towards members of certain groups. These implicit biases can influence our behaviour, especially in situations that are ambiguous. For example, when participants in a video game simulation were asked to “shoot” armed targets and “not shoot” unarmed ones, they were more likely to correctly identify armed targets if they were black, and unarmed targets if they were white. This suggests that underlying stereotypes were activated, which affected participants’ behaviour.
Implicit bias is frequently evaluated through Implicit Association Tests (IATs), where the strength of associations between various concepts are measured. People are often able to more rapidly pair, for example, negative attributes with black faces and positive attributes with white faces, than vice versa, suggesting that they are implicitly biased against black people.
Research has found that it is difficult to reverse implicit racial bias. Some of the most effective interventions are those that invoke high self-involvement and use counter-stereotypic exemplars. For example, in one intervention participants read a vivid story in which they were the protagonist. In the story they were walking down a street alone at night when they were attacked repeatedly by a white person. A black person noticed the assault and stepped in to save the participant. This was found to reduce participants’ implicit racial prejudice immediately after the event. However, even interventions such as this one are not particularly effective at reducing bias longer term.
Can virtual reality help?
Virtual reality (VR) allows users to immerse themselves in a virtual world using a VR headset. Improvements in technology mean that VR can now be used to create realistic virtual experiences relatively cheaply. It has been used increasingly in therapeutic settings, for example to treat phobias and to assist with amputee rehabilitation. Moreover, an increasing body of work has showed that VR technology can be used to reduce implicit bias.
Research has found that virtual embodiment in a different body (i.e., adopting someone else’s body in virtual reality) can lead to a strong sense of ownership over the virtual body, an effect that has been termed the “Body transfer illusion”. Moreover, several studies have found that being embodied in a virtual body of a different skin colour can reduce implicit bias towards that group. In one study, white participants carried out Tai Chi exercises while embodied either in a black or white virtual body. Implicit racial bias was measured one week before the exercise, and one week after. Those that were embodied in a black body showed a larger decrease in implicit bias, suggesting that VR embodiment can help reduce prejudice. Another study found that embodying white participants in a black virtual body lead to them treating other virtual black people as their ingroup, suggesting that they identified with that group.
Additionally, research involving Jewish-Israeli participants found that when watching a Israeli-Palestinian confrontation while immersed through VR as a Palestinian (outgroup member), they judged the Palestinian population more favourably than participants who were simply asked to imagine the outgroup’s perspective. Importantly, these views were sustained five months later, suggesting that VR embodiment can lead to lasting attitudinal change.
So why might being embodied in a different body affect people’s attitudes and behaviour? Several theories from psychological and behavioural science can shed some light on this.
Embodied cognition: Cognition is dependent on the physical body of an organism and its interactions with the environment. Changing the body through VR should therefore affect cognition.
Construal level theory: The more psychologically distant an object or event is, the more abstract it will be. VR embodiment reduces the psychological distance and makes an experience more concrete.
Social identity theory: Our sense of self is based on our group membership(s). We adopt the identity of the ingroup and compare our group favourably to other groups. VR allows people to be embodied as an outgroup member, and they should therefore start identifying with that group and viewing it more positively.
To sum up, an increasing body of evidence suggests that being embodied through VR as an outgroup member can help to reduce implicit bias towards that group, which in turn can have a positive impact on behaviour. These findings could be utilised for example by police forces, who could have officers participate in VR simulations where they are embodied as members of an ethnic minority. VR embodiment certainly ticks the ‘high self-involvement’ box, and there is some indication that effects can be long-lasting. However, much of the research to date has been done on small groups in the lab, and there is a need for larger-scale testing in real-world contexts. The current spotlight on just how pervasive racial inequality is in our society exposes the need for new and innovative ways to reduce implicit racial bias in the real world, and VR might just fit that bill.
- This blog post expresses the views of its author(s), not the position of The Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Ricardo Arce via Unsplash
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