People generally show greater preference for members of their own racial group compared to racial out-group members. This type of ‘in-group bias’ is evident in mimicry behaviors. We tend to automatically mimic the behaviors of in-group members, and this behavior is associated with interpersonal sensitivity and empathy. However, mimicry is reduced when interacting with out-group members. Although race is considered an unchangeable trait, it is possible using embodiment in immersive virtual reality to engender the illusion in people of having a body of a different race. Previous research has used this technique to show that after a short period of embodiment of White people in a Black virtual body their implicit racial bias against Black people diminishes. Here we show that this technique powerfully enhances mimicry. We carried out an experiment with 32 White (Caucasian) female participants. Half were embodied in a White virtual body and the remainder in a Black virtual body. Each interacted in two different sessions with a White and a Black virtual character, in counterbalanced order. The results show that dyads with the same virtual body skin color expressed greater mimicry than those of different color. Importantly, this effect occurred depending on the virtual body’s race, not participants’ actual racial group. When embodied in a Black virtual body, White participants treat Black as their novel in-group and Whites become their novel out-group. This reversed in-group bias effect was obtained regardless of participants’ level of implicit racial bias. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of this surprising psychological phenomenon.
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This research examined virtual–human interactions as a new form of simulated contact between members of groups in conflict. A virtual human representing an outgroup member (a Palestinian) interacted with 60 Jewish Israeli participants in an experimental study. We manipulated postural mimicry by the virtual interaction partner during a conversation about a sensitive conflict issue. Mimicry increased empathy toward the Palestinians, irrespective of participants’ feelings toward the Palestinians prior to the experiment. Further, mimicked participants who reported a priori negative feelings toward Palestinians expressed more sympathy toward their Palestinian virtual interaction partner, rated themselves as closer to him, and perceived the interaction as more harmonious compared to participants in a counter-mimicry condition. The results underscore the impact of mimicry on intergroup interactions, especially on individuals who harbor negative feelings toward the outgroup. The use of virtual–human interactions in obtaining this effect reveals the still widely unexplored potential of technology-enhanced conflict resolution.
Perspective-taking is essential for improving intergroup relations. However, it is difficult to implement, especially in violent conflicts. Given that immersive virtual reality (VR) can simulate various points of view (POV), we examined whether it can lead to beneficial outcomes by promoting outgroup perspective-taking, even in armed conflicts. In two studies, Jewish-Israelis watched a 360° VR scene depicting an Israeli-Palestinian confrontation from different POVs–outgroup’s, ingroup’s while imagining outgroup perspective or ingroup’s without imagined perspective-taking. Participants immersed in the outgroup’s POV, but not those who imagined the outgroup’s perspective, perceived the Palestinians more positively than those immersed in the ingroup’s POV. Moreover, participants in the outgroup’s POV perceived the Palestinian population in general more favorably and judged a real-life ingroup transgression more strictly than those in the ingroup’s POV, even five months after VR intervention. Results suggest that VR can promote conflict resolution by enabling effective perspective-taking.
Virtual reality (VR) has recently been popularized as the “ultimate empathy machine,” and yet the science behind the effects of VR on empathy is scarce. In this media-comparison study, we assessed the impact of VR upon physiological and subjective indicators of empathy. Furthermore, we investigated the role of social presence, i.e. the experience of being there with real others, in modulating the empathic responses. We filmed a 360º 3D video of a person disclosing a painful autobiographical story from her past. This empathy eliciting video was presented either in a VR head-mounted display or on a computer screen. Centrally, autonomic and facial responses were recorded both from the target in the video and from participants who viewed the video. We found that the VR condition enhanced viewers’ empathic care and facial synchrony with the target. Viewers in the VR condition also reported higher levels of social presence, which mediated the effects of VR on empathic care as well as on facial synchrony. The current study highlights the potential of VR to elicit social connectedness and a caring motivation to help. Our findings imply that VR has a unique potential to motivate empathy in situations where face-to-face encounters are not possible.
Cohen, D., Landau, D., Friedman, D., Hasler, B. S., Levit-Binnun, N., & Golland, N. (in press). Exposure to social suffering in virtual reality boosts compassion and facial synchrony. Computers in Human Behavior.