Virtual race transformation reverses racial in-group bias

PLoS One. 2017 Apr 24;12(4):e0174965. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0174965. eCollection 2017.


People generally show greater preference for members of their own racial group compared to racial out-group members. This type of 'in-group bias' is evident in mimicry behaviors. We tend to automatically mimic the behaviors of in-group members, and this behavior is associated with interpersonal sensitivity and empathy. However, mimicry is reduced when interacting with out-group members. Although race is considered an unchangeable trait, it is possible using embodiment in immersive virtual reality to engender the illusion in people of having a body of a different race. Previous research has used this technique to show that after a short period of embodiment of White people in a Black virtual body their implicit racial bias against Black people diminishes. Here we show that this technique powerfully enhances mimicry. We carried out an experiment with 32 White (Caucasian) female participants. Half were embodied in a White virtual body and the remainder in a Black virtual body. Each interacted in two different sessions with a White and a Black virtual character, in counterbalanced order. The results show that dyads with the same virtual body skin color expressed greater mimicry than those of different color. Importantly, this effect occurred depending on the virtual body's race, not participants' actual racial group. When embodied in a Black virtual body, White participants treat Black as their novel in-group and Whites become their novel out-group. This reversed in-group bias effect was obtained regardless of participants' level of implicit racial bias. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of this surprising psychological phenomenon.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Black or African American / psychology*
  • Empathy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Middle Aged
  • Racism / psychology*
  • White People / psychology*
  • Young Adult

Grant support

The first author’s work was supported by a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant No. 142092). The project was carried out under the European Union FP7 Future and Emerging Technologies Integrated Project Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment (VERE) (#257695). This work was also supported by PSI2014-56301-R Ser Einstein: La Influencia de Internalizar un Cuerpo Virtual en la Inteligencia, Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Competitividad of Spain. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.