Racial Bias and Virtual Embodiment
You look at your body directly and also you see it in a mirror. When you move the body moves. The strange thing is that although you don't recognise it as your body, nevertheless it feels as if it is. This type of virtual body ownership illusion has been demonstrated several times. What we are interested in though is the consequences of this body ownership illusion. Specifically, does the type of body that you feel is your body influence your behaviours, perceptual judgements, even your cognition?
A body type has an intrinsic meaning. For example, through stereotyping when you see a very old person you might automatically associate that person with certain deficits in cognition and strength - even though that might be totally untrue for that particular person. I call this 'body semantics' - the type of body carries with it certain predisposed attitudes, behaviours, psychology, physical abilities. That's when you see someone else's body. What about your own?
The beauty of virtual reality is that we can change your body. In a recent paper we showed that if you take one group of people and you put them in a casually dressed body suggestive of being 'cool', progressive, relaxed then they play the drums with greater body movement than another group of people put in a suited formal looking body. Here we followed a similar idea, and placed light skinned people in a dark skinned virtual body, using a wide field-of-view, head-tracked head-mounted display, and a motion capture suit to track the person's real body movements. The participants saw their virtual body from first person perspective with respect to the viewpoint of that body, so that when they looked down towards themselves they saw the virtual body instead of their real one. When they moved the body moved the same (through the motion capture suit). When they looked in a virtual mirror they saw this other body instead.
A few days before they entered the virtual reality we applied a test called an Implicit Association Test (IAT) for racial bias. What this does is force you to make rapid associations between concepts and representations of Black or White people. The idea is that if your reaction times in pairing White faces with positive words and Black faces with negative words is faster than White faces with negative words and Black faces with positive words, then this indicates a racial bias. It does not mean that the person is racist - far from it - but perhaps reflects an implicit and automatic bias caused through socialisation via the media (perhaps 'anti-socialisation' would be more appropriate).
The experimental study had four different conditions (experienced by 4 different groups of 15 people): being embodied in a light skinned body, a dark skinned body, a purple skinned body, or no actual body but a dark skinned body in a mirror that did not move the same as the participant. The purpose of the purple skinned body was to check whether the effects were caused by just 'difference' or 'strangeness' or race. The purpose of the 'no body' was to check that the results were caused by the illusion of body ownership over the virtual body, and not simply seeing the different body.
During the virtual reality experience nothing much happened - some virtual characters walked past the participant - half of these dark and the other half light skinned. After the conclusion of the experience the participants again completed an IAT test.
What happened is that the IAT score declined only for those who had been in the dark skinned body. Somehow, becoming, however briefly, a member of the 'out group' in a very obvious way was enough to signal the brain that this was no longer your 'out group' but your in group. The fact that this operates so fast is remarkable, but in these body illusions I find everything remarkable - the fact that a few seconds of stimulation can make a rubber arm feel like your own, or a few seconds of apparently being in another body can make it feel like your own. By the way the group of Manos Tsakiris at Royal Holloway London, very recently also demonstrated a similar effect by using a black rubber hand in the rubber hand illusion.
Tabitha C. Peck, Sofia Seinfeld, Salvatore M. Aglioti & Mel Slater (2013) Putting yourself in the skin of a black avatar reduces implicit racial bias, Consciousness and Cognition, 22(3), 779-787.
This work is funded under the FP7 Project VERE and the ERC Project TRAVERSE.