Psychologists in the UK are using virtual reality to immerse volunteers in a world where they inhabit a body other than their own, in a bid to see if racist attitudes can be reduced. Amy Pollock has more.
STORY: It's hard to imagine having a body part with a different skin colour to your own - isn't it? In fact, it's surprisingly easy to "trick" people into thinking they have a foreign body part. And once that's achieved, psychologists have found that racist attitudes can be diminished. Professor Manos Tsakiris, of Royal Holloway University Of London, tested participants' implicit racial biases before inducing the body swap illusion. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSOR AT ROYAL HOLLOWAY UNIVERISTY OF LONDON, MANOS TSAKIRIS, SAYING: "So we want to see people's reaction when they see a body of a different skin colour...So we can measure how biased people are for or against black people, for example. The next step will be to induce the illusion that they have a different body, of a different skin colour, for example, so white participants starting believing they have a black skin colour and measure again at the end of the experiment whether this experience changes their implicit racial bias." The experiments work by providing a stimulus to the face or hand of a participant. In the classic psychology experiment, the rubber hand illusion, researchers stroke a black rubber hand and a real hand with a paintbrush. While the enfacement illusion uses a video of a black woman having her face stroked with a cotton bud, participants experience the same thing simultaneously. People taking part in the study report feeling as though the foreign body parts are their own. And measuring implicit racial bias before and after the experiments shows a clear decline in racist attitudes. Tsakiris says it could be possible to use the study's techniques in the real world to change real behaviour. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSOR AT ROYAL HOLLOWAY UNIVERISTY OF LONDON, MANOS TSAKIRIS, SAYING: "It might be the case that schools can use this kind of approach to develop protocols or to develop experiences where people can see the world from someone else's perspective. But also for certain professions like police officers, or people in the criminal justice system, or prisoners, criminals who might have some sort of conviction because of hatred towards other groups. Giving them the opportunity to experience the world from someone else's perspective might be very important in changing some of their attitudes and understanding how others see the world." It's not yet clear how long the effect lasts. But as the psychologists investigate how the experiments affect brain activity, they hope the multi-sensory "body swaps" could become a practical weapon in the fight against racism.