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. Each time a participant reached out her own arm to perform a basic dexterity task, she saw her avatar’s arm move synchronously in front of her. Moreover, if a participant touched his hand in the virtual world, he would feel the tactile stimulation from his actual body while receiving visual input from his avatar’s body. By inducing participants to feel as though their avatars’ limbs were in fact their own, the virtual reality paradigm aimed to reduce self-other distinctions, thereby weakening implicit biases.
While this study adds an additional voice to the small body of existing literature on the topic, it paves the way for applications to the criminal justice system. Beyond measuring the virtual reality’s impact on implicit biases, Natalie also asked participants to evaluate mock crime scenarios, in which participants had to interpret evidence and offer judgments of guilt or innocence. While we cannot disclose any of the results yet, rest assured, we find them fascinating.
The results of that experimental study are under submission; we hope you stay tuned – we’ll announce them as soon as we can. In the meantime, if you are interested in the theory behind virtual reality for bias reduction in the courtroom, see Natalie’s most recent article in the UNH Law Review, coming out next month and currently available here.