Virtual Reality and Implicit Bias: New Work from SPINS

The Stanford Program in Neuroscience and Society

Fall 2016 has been quite the whirlwind for national politics and the media, with a seemingly endless flow of eye-catching headlines and breaking news stories. Amidst this frenzy, one news item in particular caught our attention here at the Stanford Program in Neuroscience and Society (SPINS): the emergence of “implicit bias” as a mainstream discussion point. While this term has been used among scholars for decades, and has recently made its way into popular journalism sources, on September 26th, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressly uttered the phrase “implicit bias” in a nationally televised debate. Even more on point (for our purposes), star Golden State Warriors player, Andre Iguodala, was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, saying that he hoped virtual reality could soon be used to reduce racial bias.

And that is exactly what we hope too. This summer, SPINS funded a study, led by Natalie Salmanowitz (former SPINS fellow, and current student at Harvard Law School), which examined the impact of virtual reality on implicit bias reduction and evaluations of mock crime scenarios. While the study is currently in the peer-review process, we wanted to give you a teaser and explain the basic gist of the project.

Implicit biases often stem from ingrained and subconscious stereotypes that separate ingroups from outgroups—for example, Caucasians frequently view African-Americans as inherently different from themselves, invoking subtle threat responses that ultimately encourage biased behaviors. These self-other distinctions are exactly what we sought to target with the virtual reality exercise. In the experiment, Natalie asked Caucasian participants to enter a virtual world in which they embodied an African-American avatar.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.