The phrase “put yourself in another’s shoes” emphasizes the importance of taking the perspective of others to increase empathy and maintain relationships with people around us. The ability to empathize with others appears to involve two systems that rely on different brain regions. Whereas cognitive empathy involves recognizing another person’s mental states, affective empathy is required to recognize and respond to the emotions of others (Samay-Tsoory, Aharon-Peretz, & Perry, 2009).
How successful is your endeavor to think and feel from another’s perspective in everyday life? How different would it feel if you could virtually see the world “from inside another’s body”, beyond just imagining yourself in another’s shoes?
Immersive Virtual Reality technology allows us to readily experience a sense of body ownership over a virtual avatar by providing us a first-person perspective and synchronizing our movements with a virtual avatar (Kilteni, Maselli, Kording, & Slater, 2015). Such virtual embodiment can be experienced even if the body is of the different race, age, or gender (Kilteni et al., 2015). Researcher Sofia Seinfield from the University of Barcelona and colleagues are now using this technology to see whether they can decrease racial biases and increase emotional recognition in perpetrators of domestic violence.
Peck, Seinfeld, Aglioti, and Slater (2013) explored whether virtual embodiment of white participants in a black body would reduce their implicit racial bias. Implicit racial bias is described as an automatic association between an attitude, value, or stereotype and a specific race. The Implicit Association Test (IAT), developed by Greenwald, McGee, and Schwartz (1998), is often used to measure implicit racial bias. In one version of the test, participants are asked to categorize either black or white faces with positive or negative words as quickly as possible and their response time is measured. If participants are faster at matching black faces with negative words and white faces with positive words, this suggests an implicit preference for white people. Importantly, people who show an implicit bias often do not report overt feelings of racism.
In the study by Peck et al. (2013), white female participants first completed the Implicit Association Test described above. Three days later, they returned to the laboratory and were randomly assigned to embody one of three virtual avatars: a light-skinned avatar, a dark-skinned avatar, or a purple-skinned avatar. Using Immersive Virtual Reality, the participants spent 12 minutes in their assigned body in a neutral situation, without any particular events to affect their racial attitude, where they looked at themselves directly or in a virtual mirror and encountered several virtual characters of different colors walking by. Following the embodiment, a second racial IAT test was administered.
The researchers found that white female participants that embodied a dark-skinned avatar showed a significant decrease in their IAT scores after virtual embodiment. In contrast, the participants who embodied the light-skinned or purple-skinned avatars showed similar IAT scores before and after the embodiment. The results suggest that being in a dark-skinned body — not just any different body — can lower implicit racial bias. What is truly surprising that only 12 minutes of VR embodiment could immediately alter implicit attitudes, which are considered automatic and difficult to change.
In a 2018 study, Seinfeld and colleagues decided to see whether virtual reality could also be used to change the perspectives of an aggressive population: domestic violence offenders. Offenders are frequently deficient of empathy and show difficulty in recognizing fear in faces, often misinterpreting them as happy faces (Marsh & Blair, 2008). The researchers wondered whether embodying domestic violent offenders in a female body that experiences verbal abuse would improve the offenders’ emotional recognition.
The study compared males convicted for aggression against a woman and sentenced to attend a domestic violence intervention program to men who had no history of domestic violence. Participants were asked to complete a face recognition test requiring them to identify faces as fearful, angry, or happy. The were then embodied in a virtual female body. During embodiment, a male avatar approached them, verbally abused them, threw a phone to the floor, and invaded their personal space. Following embodiment, they completed the emotional recognition task a second time.
The males convicted of domestic violence showed lower levels of emotion recognition than the non-offenders before the embodiment. However, their ability to recognize fear in female faces increased after embodiment. Males without the history of domestic violence showed no such increase in emotion recognition skills. This result suggests that a one-time virtual reality experience in a victim’s body may be sufficient to help offenders take a victim’s perspective and enhance their identification of fear in the faces of others.
The findings from these studies indicate that changing the sense of body ownership through virtual reality embodiment has an immediate and substantial impact on changing cognition and attitude at the implicit level. Although more research within this field needs to be done, the immediate perspective-taking shift induced by virtual reality embodiment has the potential to be utilized in a variety of practical settings including diversity training, empathy training, interpersonal conflict resolution program, and violence intervention programs.
Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. K. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1464–1480. https://doi-org.ezproxy.langara.ca/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.524
Kilteni, K., Maselli, A., Kording, K. P., & Slater, M. (2015). Over my fake body: Body ownership illusions for studying the multisensory basis of own-body perception. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9.
Marsh, A. A., & Blair, R. J. R. (2008). Deficits in facial affect recognition among antisocial populations: A meta-analysis. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32, 454–465. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.08.003
Peck, T. C., Seinfeld, S., Aglioti, S. M., & Slater, M. (2013). Putting yourself in the skin of a black avatar reduces implicit racial bias. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 22, 779–787. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2013.04.016
Seinfeld, S., Arroyo-Palacios, J., Iruretagoyena, G., Hortensius, R., Zapata, L. E., Borland, D., … Sanchez-Vives. M.V. (2018). Offenders become the victim in virtual reality: Impact of changing perspective in domestic violence. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-19987-7
Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., Aharon-Peretz, J., & Perry, D. (2009). Two systems for empathy: a double dissociation between emotional and cognitive empathy in inferior frontal gyrus versus ventromedial prefrontal lesions. Brain, 132(3), 617-627. doi.org/10.1093/brain/awn279