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Virtual Reality as a Way to Make Us Better People

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

I have long thought that morality is not so different from the niche construction that animals engage in: we gain valuable agency by altering our environments. We also have the capacity to create our environments to some extent. It is this constructed type of environment where we have seen an incredible surge of development, as we now use devices like Virtual Reality (VR) that allow us to transcend physical conditions with immersive symbolic environments. VR is a powerful technology with extensive applications, such as fostering better behaviours by attempting to reduce prejudice in people. In a later post I will discuss how VR can create more ethical environments (a taste of this research) but I’d like to start with something more foundational: VR intervention at the level of the self.

Farmer and Maister (2017) present a model with the self-comprising two components: the bodily self and the conceptual self. The bodily self uses sensory information from both inside and outside the body. The key thing to understand is that the bodily self is based on inferences , hence the extent to which we can use interventions to change how we represent our body to ourself. Take the well-known Rubber Hand Illusion as an example. Seeing a prosthetic hand being stroked while simultaneously feeling the effect in your own hand makes you think the prosthetic is your own. Similarly, manipulations like these have been achieved through other senses, such as thinking someone else’s voice is your own. VR has shown how much our body schemas can change, such as the full body illusion where it seems you possess a virtual avatar. The bodily self can be seen in prejudicial behaviours, including lowered isomorphic responses (similar bodily responses in ourselves when witnessing someone else experiencing something) when dealing with someone of another race. For example, compared to those we racially connect to, we feel less pain when seeing someone of a different race in pain. Physical synchrony, mimicry, and embodying an avatar of another race all have been shown to reduce prejudice.

The conceptual self, which is formed through social interactions, occurs when one becomes aware of his/her own associations (e.g., one’s preferences, group ownership, etc.). With the conceptual self, one’s self-esteem goes concurrently with one’s identification to an in-group – a concept known from Social Identity Theory. Threats to the self result in stronger identification to the in-group and being nastier towards out-groups.

Farmer and Maister (2017) further note how studies have used manipulations of the self in conjunction with VR to reduce prejudice. With respect to the conceptual self we can manipulate the groups one associates with, where contact with out-groups under the right conditions can foster cooperation and lessen prejudice. These right conditions have been laid out in Contact Theory, for example having the in-group and out-group members working towards a shared goal. Virtual Reality facilitates easier creation of groups and settings with these right conditions. Another approach is having participants practice perspective-taking so as to change the boundaries of the conceptual self with respect to the other. VR is great for this given that modalities with higher immersion and interactivity work better for perspective-taking.

I will mention a final cautionary point from this article: while studies have produced positive effects, past work has also shown negative characteristics transferring from the avatar to the person. This has been observed in a study where using a Black avatar in a video game led to increased aggression, to the player (Farmer and Maister, 2017) . This phenomenon is called the Proteus Effect. Findings like these remind us to be conscientious in how we depict disadvantaged groups in media and games.

Given that this crazy year has reminded us of how prejudice still snakes in the grass, findings regarding the malleability of the self and VR’s ability to help people understand their shared humanity with others is a cause for hope. VR lets us create those conditions in the world that elicit our better natures.

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