The convincing quality of a simulated, immersive and realistic computer-generated world creates all sorts of exciting possibilities for social science research. Social science research results have shown that virtual reality (VR) has the potential to promote a better understanding of what it’s like to be someone else. Through VR experiences societal problems like discrimination on the grounds of race, age, gender or religious affiliation can be addressed. The technology could also facilitate gender-blind hiring processes. For women in the workplace this is good news.
As it is possible to convince the mind that the virtual world is real, so it’s possible to convince the mind that it’s in fact inhabiting another body. With VR technology it’s possible for adults to believe they are children, for a young person to feel that they are much older or for a man to experience being a woman.
Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, under leadership of founding director Jeremy Bailenson has been conducting experiments focused on the potential social benefits of VR, helping people to combat fears, become more empathetic, and reduce prejudice.
“VR experience changes the way you think of yourself and others and changes your behaviour,” he said earlier this year. “And when it’s done well, it’s a proxy for natural experience, and we know experiences physically change us.”
In one experiment the participant looks into a virtual mirror and expect to see an avatar that represents them, but they don’t see themselves. Their identity changes from male to female, young to old or white to black. The situation they find themselves in then exposes them to discrimination or abuse from an avatar present in the same simulation. If the experience is very intense, it creates empathy and may lead to changed behaviour towards others in real life.
Baileson has taken his research lab to people out in the real world to demonstrate how experiences in a virtual world can have positive effects in the real world. At the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival the festivalgoers had the opportunity to experience the lab’s VR work.
“A very intense experience in the virtual world changes you in the real world,” Bailenson told the audience during a talk at the festival’s “Imagination Day.”
A study from the Royal Holloway University of London and the University of Barcelona used VR technology to study implicit bias, produced similar results as the Stanford experiment, creating a sense of empathy with others. Professor Manos Taskiris at the Department of Psychology at Royal Hollow said in a press release that their findings might help researchers to understand how to approach racism, religious hatred and gender discrimination.
There’s an old saying that you can never really understand another person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. For men to understand what it feels like to be ignored repeatedly during meetings or to understand how demeaning it is to have it inferred during job interviews that mothers can’t seriously commit to a career, men would have to swap places with women and inhabit their bodies a while.
Virtual reality technology can create these scenarios and from the results of experiments already ongoing at places like Stanford, Royal Hollow and Barcelona University, it seems that experiences while in VR could remove or reduce the biases women face in the workplace.
Indeed, with VR the effect of cognitive bias can be cut short right at the hiring process. VR could facilitate blind hiring. Blind hiring ignores all personal information and only considers demonstrated abilities. A job interview in a simulated environment could happen between the avatar of the hiring agent and the avatar of an applicant. Applicants could project themselves into an avatar that may or may not project them as they are in real life. Since the hiring agent would be interviewing an applicant without knowing whether he or she is talking to a man or a woman, a person of colour or someone with a disability, VR would level the playing field to highlight only abilities and skills making for a more impartial chance for all applicants.