Pretending to live in Albert Einstein’s body curbs implicit bias — and so could virtual reality
A new study shows that wearing a virtual body that looks like Albert Einstein may reduce bias against elderly people and improve scores on cognitive tests. Kelly Kasulis/Mic

As the famous saying goes: To understand someone, try walking a mile in their shoes.

That turned out to be a key takeaway for researchers at the University of Barcelona, who asked 15 male study participants age 30 and under to put on a virtual reality headset that gave them the body of Albert Einstein. Researchers wanted to see if looking like Einstein — an icon for genius — made people “unlock previously inaccessible mental resources.”

“We wondered whether virtual embodiment could affect cognition,” Mel Slater, a professor at the University of Barcelona and one of the study’s authors, said in a release. “If we gave someone a recognizable body that represents supreme intelligence, such as that of Albert Einstein, would they perform better on a cognitive task than people given a normal body?”

The transformation is no doubt equipment-heavy: Study participants wore a suit that tracked real-time body and eye movements using 37 different motion points, all while standing in a 12-camera environment. Meanwhile, another group of 15 men were cheated of the out-of-body Einstein experience and served as the placebo group. Participants were then walked through a number of steps to evaluate them. Both groups were asked to take an implicit bias test on the computer, then they were told to complete some cognitive exercises involving numbers. At the end, participants took the implicit bias test again.

Figure 1 from the study, published in a journal called Frontiers, shows what study participants look like in their VR bodysuits and what they see when they’ve been transformed into Einstein.
Figure 1 from the study, published in a journal called Frontiers, shows what study participants look like in their VR bodysuits and what they see when they’ve been transformed into Einstein. Domna Banakou, Sameer Kishore, Mel Slater/Frontiers

Here’s what researchers found: Men who were determined to have a low self-esteem performed better at the cognitive exercises if they were wearing Einstein’s body. Those who transformed into Einstein also generally experienced a decrease in their implicit bias against elderly people.

The study, published in a journal called Frontiers in Psychology, poses a fascinating question for the future: Can virtual reality be used to build empathy and destroy our biases?

It’s too early to tell, but there are certainly hints that VR could be used to retrain the mind to change its biases.

A 2017 study on in-group bias shows that white women can temporarily change which in-group they belong to using virtual reality. In the study, some white women were given a white virtual body while others were given a black virtual body. All of the study participants were then thrown into two different scenarios, where they interacted with white or black virtual characters.

Researchers found that white women who had a virtual black body tended to treat the black character as part of their in-group — ultimately mirroring the actions of that character more.

In a similar study, scientists found that taking on a virtual black body could actually reduce implicit bias against black people. A week after the experiment, participants still showed a reduced implicit bias score.

Much more research needs to be done, and with larger pools of study participants. But perhaps there will someday be virtual worlds that can help people get over their biggest self-esteem hang-ups — or work and school programs that can help individuals train away their implicit biases against people of color, people with disabilities, and those who are overweight, elderly or wearing religious garb.

One can only hope humans will achieve a future where virtual reality goes beyond gaming and into the realm of education and healing.