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Can virtual reality make us more empathetic?

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

In 1981, after you plunked a quarter into the local Donkey Kong cabinet and heard that menacing six-note melody play, you took control of a small man in overalls at the bottom of the screen. You might have been a child or a thirty-something, male or female, white or black or Asian or other. But on the screen, each player became the same.

Interactive games have always held the promise for deep psychological benefit. In no other medium do we, the player, actively participate in the imagined world around us. We can take ownership in a controlled character more so than in one we read about, or watch in a film, but most characters are mere vehicles for advancing through simple fairy tales. The end goal in Donkey Kong is to defeat the great ape, save his hostage, and watch him tumble down. But what if the goal was not shallow heroism but self-realization? What if we took ownership not of a pixelated everyman but lived behind the skin of another human being?

After this virtual ownership of another’s body, their attitudes towards that group nearly always became more positive

A team of researchers from Barcelona and London recently published a study called “Changing bodies changes minds” in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, and the results point toward virtual reality playing an active role not just in time-wasting entertainment but meaningful, societal changes. Dr. Manos Tsakiris is a professor of psychology at the University of London; he explains the goal of their study in plain, obvious language: “The key idea was to see whether by changing how we represent ourselves, we can in turn change the way we relate to others.”

The problem, of course, is that it’s tricky to alter our gender or race without drastic bodily transformation. Tsakiris and his team circumvent this through tactics both simple and advanced. According to the study, “participants have been exposed to bodily illusions that induced ownership over a body different than their own.” One is called “Enfacement Illusion”: A caucasian woman watches a monitor of a black woman’s face. On the monitor, a hand intermittently strokes the black woman’s face with a Q-tip; in the room, a researcher strokes the white woman’s face with a Q-tip at the same time.

“By changing self-resemblance,” Tsakiris tells me, “we create this illusion of ‘sameness.’ And because typically we have positive associations with self-related things, then people who are perceived to be like us are treated in a positive way.”

Another experiment uses virtual reality to enhance this “self-resemblance.” A participant wears VR goggles and a motion-capture suit for twenty or so minutes; through the viewfinder, it appears they are in a beige room with a single mirror. When they look into the mirror, their reflection—mimicking their every movement—belongs to that of another person. A series of Implicit Association Tests (IAT) before and after the VR experiment records the participant’s attitudes toward an “outgroup.” After this virtual ownership of another’s body, their attitudes towards that group nearly always became more positive.

If only living inside another’s skin was as easy as plunking another quarter in the slot.

This kind of illusion can affect our mind beyond racial or ethnic stereotypes. Similar experiments have taken place where an older person is given the virtual body of a child; immediately afterward, they respond in ways more child-like and process information from a younger perspective.

Implicit biases are thought to be formed at an early age and remain throughout adulthood. Few studies, though, have looked into whether these can be changed. Tsakiris acknowledges their study is no magic bullet to stop racism or other societal ills. But he can imagine a near-future where certain populations, such as grade-school students or police officers, are given similar tasks as part of their training.

“With the increased accessibility of virtual reality technologies, our experiments can be easily transformed into educational tools that could allow participants to experience the world from the perspective of someone different from themselves.”

In 1982, Nintendo released the sequel to Donkey Kong called Donkey Kong Jr. You control Kong’s son as he tries to save his dad from his captor: the man in the overalls. Over thirty years later, we’re still trying to understand the feelings and behaviors of others. If only living inside another’s skin was as easy as plunking another quarter in the slot.

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Header image by TechSoup Global.