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Nov 28, 2013 03:57 AM EST

Racial Bias Can Be Reduced Through Virtual Reality, European Researchers Say

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The old adage of walking in someone's shoes before making any judgments has been brought to reality in the virtual world. Certain biases are inbuilt and it takes years to do away with socio-cultural and environmental conditioning.

Virtual reality is found to significantly change white people's perceptions of other skin colors, according to European researchers.

Researchers at University of Barcelona say that inbuilt racial biases reduce when white skinned people don a virtual body with darker skin.

Professor Mel Slater states that not everybody is explicitly racist. People's brains get attuned based on the society they grow up in. If the media constantly reports for/against a certain group, the brain picks up these associations immediately.

He conducted an implicit association experiment with around 60 participants where they were shown white and dark skinned people and asked to associate negative and positive words with each face sighting. If the participants instinctively hit the negative words when shown a dark skinned face, it showed an implicit bias.

This bias reduced when the participants donned their dark skinned avatar.

Referring to virtual reality as an 'empathy generating machine' Slater said that it can make people experience something different from their real life.

"If the effect is shown to be long-lasting this might provide tools for serious immersive games that attempt to foster pro-social behaviour and empathy," Slater said, BBC reports.

Slater hopes that virtual reality could one day be used as a medium to fight racism in the real world, BBC reports.

Racism is a widespread disease that has penetrated every part of the world. Racism has been an issue since the formation of the United States. The government in the past few decades has been actively promoting policies of assimilation. The recent and most prominent racism cases include the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of African American Trayvon Martin,  the attack on a sikh professor of Columbia University in a possible hate crime and a 20-year-old US Soldier killed in an apparent racist attack.

In another study led by Manos Tsakiris at Royal Holloway University of London, the team found that when a dark virtual rubber hand was stroked at the same time as the white caucasians' hand (which was out of sight) by an experimenter, the racism bias changed in a positive way.

When the participant sees the rubber hand being stroked at the same time as his/her own hand , the 'Rubber Hand Illusion makes them believe that the fake hand has replaced their own hand and is now part of their body.

"This study has important implications for changing and reducing negative racial attitudes," researcher Lara Maister from the Department of Psychology, said in a statement. "It comes down to a perceived similarity between white and dark skin. The illusion creates an overlap, which in turn helps to reduce negative attitudes because participants see less difference between themselves and those with dark skin." 

Although it is unclear whether the virtual world could have a long-lasting effect on white people's racial attitudes, Antony Greenwald, at the University of Washington in Seattle, said, "The best interpretation is that this makes some sort of temporary change in how a person represents the categories [of race].

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