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Study: 'Bodyswapping' Creates Identification With Others

The "rubber hand illusion" has been used in psychological experiments for nearly two decades. Here, at Vanderbilt University, a researcher uses a pair of brushes to test a participant’s perception. (Vanderbilt University / John Russell)

An experiment using computer and other visual manipulations allowed subjects to see themselves as someone from a different group, and researchers found that such "virtual bodyswapping" led to a reduction in unconscious biases among white subjects.

In a paper published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, investigators described how they used computerized virtual reality and, in other experiments, a prosthetic arm trick to make subjects think they inhabited the body of someone from a different racial or age group.

The "rubber hand illusion" involved having a participant put his hand behind a screen while a rubber hand — of a different color — was on a table in front of him. When the rubber hand was stroked at exactly the same time that the unseen hand was, the participant felt as if the prosthesis was part of his body.

According to Manos Tsakiris, a psychology professor at Royal Holloway University of London, it is actually pretty easy to trick the brain into thinking it inhabits the body of another person.

"We use this kind of virtual reality technique to create illusions of embodiment, so that you start feeling as if you have black skin or your body size is smaller than it is," he said.

Tsakiris and an international team of researchers wanted to see whether virtually swapping bodies in such a fashion could alter someone's deeply ingrained feelings about and stereotypes of different social groups. They wanted to know whether a person's feelings changed in a perceptible way if he felt ownership of the transformed individual he saw before him.

Tsakiris said researchers used a psychology tool called an "implicit association task" to see whether a subject attached fewer negative images and concepts to someone of a different group after the experiment.

"What we found as a result of this change in embodiment, of becoming someone else, people's implicit racial bias changes," he said. "They become less negatively biased against 'out' groups. And it is an interesting finding because it goes beyond any kind of explicit views people may have about different groups."

Tsakiris said the finding was consistent over several studies that used different virtual bodyswapping techniques.

"If you change people's self-representation, you change they way they stereotype and the way they relate to others," he said.

Tsakiris noted the controversy in the United States over policing involving racial stereotypes in predominantly African-American communities. He said it might be possible from his work to develop exercises to help sensitize police officers to the citizens they interact with.

"You can have interventions that use the same kind of technique that allow people to take the perspective of someone else and see how the world is experienced from that perspective," he said. Such interventions "might change how people relate to others, how people behave toward others."

The researchers are doing high-tech imaging studies to see how the brain changes when someone identifies with another individual through virtual bodyswapping, as well as how long the effects last.