Why Virtual Reality May Be Our Best Weapon Against Racial Bias

We need to accept that we are all biased by our own experience.
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(Co-authored by Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth)

The movie adaptation of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy contains a brilliant concept: the “point-of-view gun.” When someone is shot with it, they can experience first-hand the feelings of the shooter in that particular moment. Sadly, this gun doesn’t exist. If it did, might hold the key to moving past racial bias.

We may, however, already possess the technological know-how to create a viable substitute: virtual reality.

Understanding what we don’t experience

Contrary to popular belief, our experiences in life actually narrow our perspective rather than broadening it. While we can easily empathize with people who have had experiences similar to our own, we often fail to acknowledge accurately what we don’t experience. We thus judge and understand others through the lens of personal experience.

In particular, unless something happens directly to us — or to someone very close — we tend to underestimate its importance. The hardships of disability, for example, are inevitably discounted in the mind of a person without a disability. The same is true in the case of minorities. Members of the majority typically don’t experience the difficulties that minorities face on a daily basis. Newt Gingrich’s comment in June that, “If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination” sums up how this plays out in practice.

Sadly, even the most empathetic and compassionate of us cannot fully comprehend the injustices exerted upon various minorities throughout history. Their ongoing battle for fairer treatment in a wide variety of settings is a testament to the inability of majorities to learn from the experiences of minorities.

Why don’t we learn our lesson?

More often than not, the effect of the personal experience gap on empathy is so strong that we keep missing many obvious opportunities to learn from, and mitigate, racial, ethnic and other minority related conflicts. Humanity’s past is marked by a series of horrific genocides. Yet, will this guarantee that similar events won’t happen again soon somewhere in the world?

“Rather than attempting to learn from others’ experience, we instead let tribal instincts take over.”

In the US, policymakers have failed to learn enough from recent events where the mistreatment of minorities has created widespread outrage. Why haven’t the killings of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and so many others, or the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement been enough to implement policies to avert similar incidents in the future?

Rather than attempting to learn from others’ experience, we instead let tribal instincts take over. These instincts are then transformed into overgeneralizations by those who seek to divide in order to conquer political influence, triggering a ripple effect. Even a small discrepancy can cause huge empathy deficiencies and polarization. Unless we evolve to learn adequately from others’ experiences, we will always face the danger that racism and discrimination against a subgroup of population reach troubling heights.

We need a weapon from another galaxy

To break the stalemate, we need to accept that we are all biased by our own experience and need mechanisms that enable different people and groups to learn from the experiences of others.

Enter the point-of-view gun: virtual reality. After filmmaker Chris Milk showed a VR film on a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan to participants of World Economic Forum in 2015, VR startups like Ryot took notice and developed tools to further help users understand what it feels like to be a refugee from Syria. Thanks to a VR camera dubbed the “transportation device,” Ryot can bring viewers, virtually, right into the thick of strife in places such as refugee camps in Greece and the dinghies carrying them ashore from Turkey.

A study in progress at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, aptly named Empathy at Scale, uses VR to place participants in situations where they can partake, virtually, in the experience of being homeless. The NFL is currently exploring how to use this technology to create virtual situations that will help staff and athletes confront racism and sexism.

Why not, then, use VR’s promising capabilities to create other simulations that will help bridge the experience gap underlying racial bias? Simulations such as Nonny de la Peña’s new immersive journalism piece emulating the Trayvon Martin shooting. Or, say, of black people interacting with white policemen in cities like Chicago. A 2015 Trends in Cognitive Science study, Changing Bodies Changes Minds, indeed managed to reduce prejudices against other races by virtually putting people in their bodies.

The jury is still out on how and when this empathy machine will close the experience gap. To be fair, we need to see a lot more of this and other, similar tools in action. If effective, they could ultimately be integrated into classrooms and training seminars across all sectors, including policy making and law enforcement. For now, the vast potential for VR to help solve of one of America’s most pressing social problems still remains largely untapped.

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