YANSS 042 – Reducing Unconscious Biases and Prejudices With Rubber Hands and Virtual Reality

One of the more unsettling recent scientific discoveries is the fact that your behavior is influenced every day by unwanted, unconscious social and cultural biases.

Sure, you accept that some people think in certain ways that you don’t because they’ve absorbed cultural norms that you didn’t, but what about your own mind? It can seem as if once you’ve recognized your own contributions to racism and privilege you should then be able to proceed with a clean slate, rebooted with the awareness of your own ignorance, but free from it.

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The evidence suggests it isn’t that easy. The desire alone doesn’t seem to remove prejudice from your thoughts and actions. In experiments where subjects were asked to identify an image within two seconds and to mark it as either a gun or a tool, subjects were much more likely to mistake tools for guns if they first saw a black face before making the call. If shown a white face beforehand, those same people made the mistake in reverse, mislabeling guns as tools. In another line of research, scientists found that people trying to make fair and unbiased decisions in the justice system are just as susceptible. Those researchers wrote that in court cases “involving a white victim, the more stereotypically black a defendant is perceived to be, the more likely that person is to be sentenced to death.”

The seeds of bigotry and xenophobia were planted in your brain long ago, and though you can consciously desire to be unbiased when it comes to race, religion, age, politics, and all the other social phenomena that glom people together – those things have already molded the synaptic landscape in your head. Undoing that in an effort to reduce prejudice will take time. The good news is that neuroscientists are, right now, working on how that undoing might be accomplished at the individual level.

In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast we sit down with cognitive neuroscientist Lara Maister who has married two fascinating and somewhat bizarre lines of research, one from psychology which reveals the unsettling truth behind hidden racial biases, and another from neuroscience that reveals how easily you transfer feelings of ownership from your familiar flesh onto inanimate objects and virtual-reality models.

Listen as Maister describes how she measured people’s implicit racial attitudes, and then reduced the strength of those unconscious, automatic, undesirable cognitive processes by mentally placing those same subjects in avatars designed to look like members of groups and subcultures to which the subjects did not belong. For those who would like to see less prejudice in the world, the results were equal parts encouraging and trippy.

Can changing your body, even just for a few minutes, change your mind? Can a psychological body transfer melt away your long-held opinions and unconscious prejudices? Maybe so. Learn more about this and other strange psychological phenomena as cognitive neuroscientist Lara Maister describes her unconventional experiments in the latest episode.

After the interview, I discuss a news story about scientists reducing prejudices and unconscious biases through mindfulness meditation.

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of the book, “You Are Not So Smart,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Jeszica Rose who submitted a recipe for jeszicookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

Links and Sources

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Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Changing Bodies Changes Minds: Owning Another Body Affects Social Cognition

Lara Maister’s Research

White More Likely to Misidentify Tools as Guns When Linked to Black Faces 

Split-Second Decisions and Unintended Stereotyping

Looking Deathworthy
Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts
Capital-Sentencing Outcomes

Drunk Tank Pink

Mindfulness Mitigates Biases You May Not Know You Have

Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias

The Rubber Hand Illusion – Horizon: Is Seeing Believing?