Originally written for graduate school July 2016.
(originally written August 2016)
Imagine this scenario for a minute.
You are a white man going through training to become a police officer and you have to go through a virtual reality exercise where you are transformed into a young African American man in a low-income neighborhood. You enter the life of this character, based on a real person. You spend some time living his life. You eat where he eats, you talk with other people he talks to, you go to high school as him. Every time you raise your arms or look down at your hands you see your brown skin and everyone else sees you that way as well. When you speak, others around you recognize you as a man from their community. They look at you funny if you talk in a different style than they do or you disagree with them. You see on the screen how your character feels and your own emotions are monitored through the scenario. Through this experience, you start to feel the pressures and social expectations of this young man’s life. You don’t just do this exercise once, you do it four or five times. By the fifth time, you know a lot about being that young man from his neighborhood. You know about his relationships and family dynamic, you know what his friends are like, you know about his internal dilemmas. During one of the sessions you are peer pressured by a group of your friends to join them in robbing a corner store. You agree to do it to advance the plot of the story and you experience being arrested and thrown into jail.
If you could experience what it’s like to be peer pressured into committing a crime and being arrested, do you think this would affect your perspective and actions as a police officer?
I believe that the future of accepting a job with the power to take lives (police officer, president etc) will include this sort of Virtual Reality (“VR”) empathy training. This VR training will also be used to build empathy among various groups that either hate each other or are at war with each other. Virtual Reality trainings may not solve all of our problems, but it will help prevent unnecessary misunderstanding and also help bridge the gap between waring factions. Hatred among groups of people stems from several factors, including the need to self identify as better than others and the fear of the unknown. Addressing fears and perceptions through VR will help mitigate the hatred many people feel for others and help create a more peaceful world.
Recently, virtual reality has become increasingly popular and celebrated as the media experience of the future. There are some companies out there already that are using virtual reality to treat psychological fears and phobias through “exposure” therapy. By looking into how this clinically proven “exposure therapy” works in treating fears and phobias, it will shed legitimacy on my theory that VR can be used to lessen fears among groups of people and therefore hate among groups of people. We will also hear from some people who are already excited about using VR to build empathy bridges between groups of people.
But why do we feel the need to be a part of an elite group that is superior to others? It is believed by psychologists that we desire to think highly of ourselves. The late Henri Tajfel, of the University of Bristol in England, and John Turner, of the Australian National University, devised a theory that explained that one way to lift your self-esteem is to be a part of a distinctive group, a winning group. California high school history teacher Ron Jones recruited students to participate in an exclusive new cultural program called “the Wave.” Within weeks, these students were separating themselves from others and aggressively intimidating critics. Eventually, Jones confronted the students with the reality that they were unwitting participants in an experiment demonstrating the power of nationalist movements. (Winters, 2002).
If you have ever been on a sports team or even a trivia night team, you can probably remember the feelings of pride you had to be on that team. You probably believed, or at least, wanted to believe that your team was the best. This is a great example of this theory. Another way is to play up the qualities of your own group is to attack the attributes of others so that you feel your group is better. (Winters, 2002) If you’ve ever said bad things about the other team you were competing against, then you know how this feels. I can attest to myself and my observation of others that I believe these two scholars were correct in their assessment of why we form groups and believe we are superior.
Research has been performed to find people’s underlying prejudices and it is pretty clear that we are all susceptible to prejudice and that there is an unconscious desire to divide the world into “us” and “them.” So we build prejudices among groups to feel superior to others. Is it possible to address these natural tendencies to feel our group (race, country, team etc) is superior to others? Happily, there is also research that shows that prejudices are fluid and that when we become conscious of our biases we can take active and successful steps to combat them. (Winters, 2002). This research supports my suggestion in this paper that by virtually coming to know others in a group you think of as inferior to your own, you may become more aware of your own prejudices and become more conscientious of what others may be thinking and feeling. So there is hope for us. We just need to take active steps to identify our unconscious biases and address them. For those less interested in tackling their own biases, we can put them through Virtual Reality trainings to help open their minds to what it might be like to be a person in a group they look down on or think negatively of subconsciously.
The Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab is already working to create this exact application.
“Feeling prejudice by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is what VR was made for,”
Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
They are developing diversity training scenarios aimed to develop empathy. A surprising group is already very interested in applying these training scenarios, the NFL. The NFL is in the early stages of determining how it will use the new technology to train league staffers and players on understanding bias, league executives tell USA TODAY. In a demonstration of a diversity training simulation, the user at first appears in a virtual mirror as a white male, and then in the blink of an eye as a black female. Moments later, an animated white male is screaming obscenities. When you raise your hands in self-defense, your arms are that of a black woman. The idea is to truly feel the impact of racism, even if temporarily and virtually. (Cava, 2016).
Another example of this application already in use is filmmaker Chris Milk. He showed his work using virtual reality to powerfully re-create the experience of life inside a Syrian refugee camp. Milk offered the conclusion during his TED talk that virtual reality devices could become the ultimate “empathy-generating machines.” (Anderson, 2016)
The human ability to imagine is truly incredible. This ability to imagine yourself as another person or in another situation can be applied to pain mitigation as well. “There’s tremendous potential for VR to do good,” says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford’s lab, who is partnering with Rizzo on new VR pain studies. He describes one such application, where a burn victim is placed into a snowy VR landscape, which reduces the pain inherent in changing bandages. “Mind over matter,” he says. The role of therapy through virtual reality will also make an impact on our ability to create a more peaceful and less prejudiced world in the future.
Self awareness and the ability to cope with fears of others will also help prevent unnecessary hatred and attacks on other people different than us.
Fear is a powerful emotion that can contribute to hatred and feeling the need to act or take control of a situation. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has long used exposure therapy to treat fears and obsessions. There are several businesses that already exist to create virtual reality exposures for people who need to de-sensitize their brains to a traumatic event or compulsive thought/fear they might have.
A recently published study found that the VR therapy alone was as good as a combination of drug therapy and VR therapy. (Senson 2016) In fact, one of the drugs studied led to a worse outcome for patients. There is another clinical trial ongoing that is investigating the use of Bravemind VR therapy in military sexual trauma. This study supports my theory that VR is effective in re-wiring the brain to help people see the world differently.
In addition to their work on phobias, Psious and VirtualRet also have solutions for generalized anxiety and relaxation. Another company developed DEEP, a unique meditative VR game where the user explores a strange and beautiful underwater world. The unique part is that the game is completely controlled through breathing (biofeedback). Correct breathing techniques are central to meditation and relaxation, and with the custom DEEP controller the user’s breathing coincides with what is seen in the virtual environment and controls how the user moves through it. (Senson 2016). Exercises in meditation and relaxation could also help contribute to a more peaceful world.
But what will these virtual reality experiences look and feel like 10 years from now? Instead of the clunky headsets we see today that often make you feel dizzy, the virtual reality headsets of the future will be much smaller, thinner and easier to wear.
You absolutely will not feel dizzy during a virtual reality training in the future. The immersive experience will be much more immersive in that you won’t be constantly reminded you are wearing a hardware on your head, like you are today. You will have a piece of hardware for your vision, your hearing, your smelling and your feeling. You may have to actually walk a bit, though probably standing still. If you are running from the police in the training, you will run in place. The point of this being that you should experience the adrenalin and strain the same way your character is experiencing it. One important aspect of virtual reality in the future, however, is that you will have to take breaks every 10–15 minutes. Because the trainings are so realistic, it will be important that you don’t lose touch of the fact that you are in a virtual world, not the real world. In difficult or stressful simulations this will be especially important to prevent the trainee from experiencing any unnecessary trauma. VR simulators that are potentially traumatic will be reserved for people in power who are responsible for sending soldiers into war zones, such as world leaders. World Leaders will be asked to experience VR simulators of what their soldiers experience, so that they will be less quick to send soldiers to war unaware of the deep consequences both mentally and physically they are placing on those soldiers.
In the future, virtual reality and emotion reading technologies will allow us to experience what its like to be another person and experience what it’s like to be them in their world. This will be used to build empathy among different groups of people, whether it be economic groups, racial group or groups at war with one another. Allowing someone to walk in another person’s shoes will be used to help groups of people bridge their differences, resolve conflicts and prevent wars. This technology will help many people and world leaders around the world get a much deeper understanding of the groups they hate or fear. This deeper understanding will help address our underlying, subconscious biases and prevent unnecessary violence and foster increased diplomacy and dialogue among waring factions.
Anderson, Chris. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. Print.
Cava, Marco Della. “Virtual Reality Tested by NFL as Tool to Confront Racism, Sexism.” USA TODAY. N.p., 10 Apr. 2016. Web. 2 Aug. 2016. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/04/08/virtual-reality-tested-tool-confront-racism-sexism/82674406/>.
Senson, Alex. “Virtual Reality Therapy: Treating The Global Mental Health Crisis.” TechCrunch. Crunch Network, 06 Jan. 2016. Web. 02 Aug. 2016.
Winters, Jeffrey. “Why We Fear the Unknown.” Psychology Today. N.p., 9 June 2002. Web. 2 Aug. 2016.