Ever since the rise of social media, smartphones and other modern methods of communication there has been a great deal of talk about the negative impact of technology on the way humans interact with each other.

Some believe that social networks and messaging apps have made us less willing to connect face-to-face, which is affecting our ability to socialise, and it’s not hard to see why ‘trolling’ has become so widespread when many find it so easy to share malicious information online from the safety of their keyboard without fear of real consequences, even if the effect on the recipient can be very damaging.

Should we therefore be concerned that technology threatens our capacity to put ourselves in another’s shoes, to understand what someone else is experiencing by imagining what they’re going through, to feel that crucial human emotion called empathy?

Perhaps, but on the contrary there is another new technology that promises to do the exact opposite – virtual reality. Instead of intensifying our feelings of prejudice, VR is emerging as a tool for empathetic development, and there have been a number of recent studies to back this up.

One experiment carried out by Stanford University in the US invited a selection of participants to find out what it’s like to lose their job and their home by experiencing it through a VR simulation. Another group encountered a similar narrative, but through ‘traditional’ media such as books, TVs and films. In one case, 85% of the VR group pledged to support homeless people after the experience finished compared to 63% from the traditional group.

This is largely down to the immersive qualities of virtual reality. Not only does VR totally absorb the wearer in the virtual world that has been created for them through 360-degree visuals that prevent any distractions; the technology’s non-passive capabilities mean users can also be engaged further by having control over what they see and interact with.

Debiasing and discrimination

Because it enables people to see the world through another’s eyes, VR is now being talked about as an effective weapon against some common forms of discrimination, such as racism, as well as implicit racial bias – when we harbour such feelings unintentionally and make judgements about others based on race without realising it.

Back in 2013, an investigation by TC Peck et al found that light-skinned participants that were assigned a dark-skinned virtual body through a VR program notably reduced their implicit racial bias towards dark-skinned people.

By getting the participant to visualise that they are in fact another individual – in this case someone from a completely different ethnic background – they are made to experience living with another skin colour for themselves through use of full-body visuomotor synchrony and a virtual mirror.

This process of ‘embodiment’ through VR can be an effective way of quashing any conscious or unconscious bias that may exist within an individual.

Other projects have gone a step further than just placing its subjects inside the mind of a person from a different racial group by making them experience a set of events. In ‘1000 Cut Journey’, a virtual reality experience that premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, the viewer becomes a black man that encountered racism as a child, adolescent and young adult, and because they’re made to feel that it’s happening to them, it’s far more hard-hitting than, say, a regular movie.

The idea is that this helps the viewer gain a better understanding of the social realities of racism.

The business case

As well as giving individuals an insight into another’s world, experiences such as these are now beginning to capture the attention of corporates looking to identify whether they have a problem with implicit racial bias in their organisation.

It is not uncommon for companies to spend heavily on initiatives that aim to tackle this very issue, but they are often ineffective and do little more than make the trainee feel shame, guilt and other triggered emotions that can actually do more harm to the company than good.

Debias VR is a research and training lab that sets out to make implicit bias testing and training fun and more engaging than more conventional approaches. Its evidence-based ‘debiasing’ methods allow the user to measure and track their progress over time – rather than them having to cram all their learning into one session – and the interactions are positive, making the participant feel good about the process, which founder Clorama Dorvilias believes is more likely to leave an impact on them.

Technologies that bring benefit to society are nothing new, but they usually do this my making our lives easier. Much less common are solutions that can actually improve us people, but if these examples are anything to go by, VR may be capable of doing just that.