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CAN VIRTUAL REALITY EFFECTIVELY MITIGATE UNCONSCIOUS BIAS?

Traditional equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives can activate rather than stamp out bias, immersive virtual environments may be the solution for organizational transformation. 


The current social and political climate have bought discussions about biases, and prejudices to the forefront. There is the more apparent systemic bias - where medical, judicial, educational, political  institutions are inherently designed to favour one group of people over the other. Alongside overt discrimination there is the less apparent yet equally pervasive - unconscious biases that exist within institutions. 


Unconscious biases can be understood as a set of opinions or judgements we may hold about another person or a group of people that we may not be explicitly aware of. They may be based on overt or covert features like race, appearance, disability, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and many others. These biases can be grouped on the basis of the underlying behaviour. The tendency to be drawn to people “like us” (affinity bias), or justifying actions of a person you like (Halo effect), seeking information or peers who confirm your thoughts and ideologies (confirmation bias), parroting thoughts and behaviours of a group to feel loved (group think) are a few types of unconscious biases. 


Another type of bias - Perception biases - where presumptions about certain people makes it impossible to have an objective judgement about them, have historically affected women and people in the BIPOC and LGBTQ2 communities. For example, Black and Latino employees are often mistaken as administrative or custodial staff, women are payed less than male counterparts and are withheld from leadership roles due to beliefs about influence of emotions and familial bonds, resumes with non-white sounding names are less likely to hear back for interviews. Mistrust, stereotyping, lower pay, fewer opportunities, and inability to climb the corporate ladder are some of the many challenges they face at the workplace. 


At the workplace, biases can influence hiring/firing, performance reviews, promotions, salaries, and formation of teams. Individuals who experience workplace bias report feeling disengaged, and withhold ideas due to feeling ignored. Biases may lead to a talent drain as individuals experiencing biases perceive the work environment as being hostile, are more likely to leave the organization, and less likely to refer others to their employer. Discrimination also takes an emotional toll – with increased stress related illnesses, absenteeism, and poor mental health. The annual cost of the fall out of workplace bias (not counting the legal costs) is projected at US$64 billion.

 

In an attempt to increase awareness and eliminate biases at the workplace, organizations have resorted to conducting mandatory equity, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) training, using standardized rating scales for hiring and performance reviews, and setting up grievance systems. Unfortunately, these initiatives are mainly measures to avoid lawsuits, and fail to eliminate bias.

 

In fact, studies have now shown that many traditional EDI initiatives can reinforce bias and make people defensive of their beliefs. Mandatory training that uses negative or authoritative messaging are perceived as strong arming which makes participants more averse to learning the message, and are left feeling greater animosity toward the other group. Studies have shown that when individuals face external pressure to eliminate prejudice it led to greater implicit and explicit prejudice than not intervening.

 

What does work is a combination of creating awareness, and providing agency to the individual (self-determination) to experience and understand biases. Allowing individuals to experience how biases play out, empowers them to evolve their own behaviour.  

 

While typically judged as a purely deliberate choice, unconscious biases have an evolutionary and neuropsychological origin. They are neurological “shortcuts” to maximize processing power. Parsing information at an unconscious level and chunking it into categories (“like me vs. unlike me”) allows the brain to process the information much faster than bringing it to the level of consciousness, preparing for a speedier response in case of threat. Interestingly, the areas of the brain associated with unconscious biases are also the ones that are responsible for empathy, reasoning, and forming impressions of others. Training initiatives that bring the bias to a conscious level, provide reflection or feedback, and can activate empathy and other emotions are therefore more effective at mitigating bias.

 

Companies are increasingly turning to virtual reality for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training. Traditional EDI training focuses on naming types of biases, highlighting the risks, and mentally playing out scenarios. Immersive virtual environments (IVE), in contrast, can realistically simulate biases that play out at workplace settings and allow individuals to experience bias as a victim, perpetrator, or a bystander.

 

Because the individual is immersed in a realistic environment – seeing, hearing, and feeling the effects of the bias, they have a sense of embodiment. Emotional cues attached to the experience greatly facilitates the encoding and retrieval of information – a key reason why knowledge gained in IVEs is perceived as more impactful and meaningful, and translates better to real world.

 

There is substantial evidence supporting the use of VR-based for mitigating unconscious bias.

 

Training in IVEs was demonstrably more effective than mental simulation in recognizing ageism, creating empathy, and encouraging individuals to stand up for older members against negative attitudes of the larger group. In other studies, merely embodying a black avatar in a virtual scenario resulted in sustained reduction in implicit bias, even when the virtual environment itself was unrelated to the issue of bias. For example, individuals who assumed a black avatar in a VR painting activity demonstrated less racial bias as jurors in a courtroom situation. By enabling perspective taking, training in IVEs have been shown to reduce negative social stereotyping and leads to more prosocial behaviour.

 

The cognitive and behavioral changes resulting from immersive virtual environments have been found to be more effective in fostering gender-equality, acceptance of disabled individuals, altruism, and environmentally friendly behaviours.

 

IVEs can also be used to level the playing field. For example, VR-interviews can hone-in on competency and reduce perceived discrimination during the hiring process compared to traditional face-to-face interviews

 

IVEs create safe environments for a user to learn about, identify, and remediate bias without being judged for their choices. Other advantages include the ability to track progress and collect data for performance analysis and insights into the types of biases that exist and the resulting organizational bottlenecks.


The scalability of VR solutions, and potential to expand to other areas of application such as retraining, upskilling, and soft-skill training can make it a powerful tool for workplace transformation.


Gayatri Aravind is Dark Slope’s Science Director and Advisor on Learning Science. Contact us to learn more about how your organization can use XR technologies to help improve EDI initiatives.


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