Virtual Reality: Can the “Empathy Machine” end prejudice?

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Lukuaika: 5 min.

Authors: Matthias Aulbach & Matilde Tassinari

Virtual Reality (VR) has been hailed as a revolution in video games since at least the 1990s. Gamers and game developers are not the only ones who have noticed the potential of VR: nowadays, VR is used for such diverse purposes as surgery training, military training, or treatment of phobias. Roughly within the past decade, social psychologists also hopped on the wagon and started to use VR to study one of their most important topics: prejudice.

When most people think of Virtual Reality, gaming is the first thing that comes to mind. What exactly do we mean when talking about VR? Definitions vary but generally speaking, we refer to an immersive experience that gives the user the feeling of being in a different location, most typically using a head-mounted display. The effect of immersion is normally enhanced with a possibility to steer a virtual body, an avatar, and use it to interact with the virtual world.

Recent research has begun to use those features to study and reduce prejudice. This young research area has identified revolutionary ways to incite empathy for others and to help make people less prejudiced. At the same time, more research has identified problems that might arise with this technology and is considering how to avoid unintended side effects. 

The science behind the goggles

Scientists essentially have two ways of using VR to study and intervene on prejudice. First option is that they use VR to create a situation where participants interact with a member of a prejudiced group (or rather an avatar representing one). This would be an adaptation of traditional prejudice studies where participants have real-life contact with an outgroup member. Another option is that participants get to “walk in an outgroup member’s shoes” by controlling an avatar that looks like a member of an outgroup. This alternative is, of course, very unique to VR, and judging from the literature a number of researchers are most excited about that. So what does a typical study look like? Usually, participants belonging to a majority group (e.g. white Americans) are immersed in virtual surroundings. The avatar they are steering can either be similar to the participants or resemble a minority group member (e.g. Black Americans). Despite a good number of studies focused on ethnic minorities, researchers have represented a wide variety of outgroups encompassing many stigmatized social groups, such as drug users, obese people and mental health patients.

Participants acquire awareness of their virtual body by looking at the avatar’s hands and looking at their avatar in a mirror placed in the virtual environment. Sometimes, some tasks are added, such as doing tai-chi movements to strengthen the connection between oneself and the avatar. There’s also the chance to interact with other avatars in the virtual environment, either steered by other people or entirely computer-programmed (in the latter case, we would call this a virtual agent rather than an avatar). For example, participants can play a game with other avatars, or have a guided discussion with them. After some minutes of this experience, researchers measure participants’ prejudice towards the group they just embodied alongside other variables of interest such as empathy. 

A risky road: mixed results and unclear pathways

When trying to get a grasp of this research field you will find a mixed bag of evidence. While quite a few studies have found that participants reported less prejudice against the target group, other studies have found no effects. In some rare cases, participants embodying a minority avatar even showed a stronger intergroup bias after the virtual experience. Later studies seem to suggest that feeling badly is the factor that leads to increased prejudice towards the minority group represented by the embodied avatar. It is therefore crucial to test such an intervention well before releasing it to the public in order not to increase the problem that you are trying to solve.

When thinking about the term “walking in someone’s shoes” we easily identify the pathway through which VR interventions might be working. The idea is that seeing the world through someone else’s eyes should increase our empathy towards them. In other words, it should help us understand what they think, how they feel, and how they perceive the world.

A few studies have investigated this idea specifically and, again, come to mixed conclusions. Some aspects of empathy, such as perspective-taking, might be enhanced through VR interventions. In other studies, it seems that empathy is too hard to change in adult participants and that such efforts could be futile. It is also possible that only those participants who already tend to be very empathetic benefit from the intervention.

Is it worth the trouble?

A mixed evidence base is of course not the best argument for continuing a research line on prejudice-reducing interventions. However, this research is not just about studies in psychology laboratories. It also tells us about processes that are happening every day. People interact with each other in VR social networks and video games through avatars that might or might not represent their social group belonging. Understanding how such interactions influence users’ social perceptions can help in designing video games that alleviate rather than reinforce prejudice.

Furthermore, VR allows us to recreate any social environment and to interact with minorities that we would hardly ever meet in daily life. That is why gaining awareness on those virtual experiences can have an impact in preventing prejudice and improving equality, and does so with a high cost-effectiveness. While it won’t solve societal conflicts alone, VR will go a long way as an empathy machine to counter prejudice.     

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Matthias Aulbach, PhD: After a diploma in psychology from the University of Würzburg, Germany, Matthias obtained his PhD in social psychology from the University of Helsinki in 2021 with research on impulsive determinants of unhealthy eating. He then started as a Postdoc in the PREVENT project that studies the use of Virtual Reality for prejudice reduction with a neuropsychological angle. He is interested in why people act against their own intentions and how a better understanding of the human mind can help people act the way they would like to.

Matilde Tassinari, PhD candidate: Matilde is pursuing a PhD in social psychology at Helsinki University. The focus of her PhD is on prejudice reduction through Virtual Reality, but she is also interested in social justice and socioeconomic inequalities from a psychological perspective. She is currently part of the PREVENT consortium, which is aimed at understanding prejudice from a joint neuroscientific and psychological perspective on intergroup relations and emotions.

References:

Tassinari, M., Aulbach, M., & Jasinskaja-Lahti, I. (2021). The use of virtual reality in studying prejudice and its reduction: a systematic review.

Slater, M. (2018). Immersion and the illusion of presence in virtual reality. British Journal of Psychology, 109(3), 431-433.

Christofi, M., & Michael-Grigoriou, D. (2017, October). Virtual reality for inducing empathy and reducing prejudice towards stigmatized groups: A survey. In 2017 23rd International Conference on Virtual System & Multimedia (VSMM) (pp. 1-8). IEEE.

Banakou, D., Beacco, A., Neyret, S., Blasco-Oliver, M., Seinfeld, S., & Slater, M. (2020). Virtual body ownership and its consequences for implicit racial bias are dependent on social context. Royal Society open science, 7(12), 201848.