Our ability to empathize depends, in part, on how much we see ourselves in others. Watch someone get smacked in the face and you’re likely to wince. And studies show you’re more likely to feel the sting when the other person is more like you, when it comes to age or sex or race.
But what if we could literally see ourselves differently?
To find out, psychologists engaged in some experimental body swapping. They use illusions that convince subjects that a rubber hand is actually part of their body or that a virtual body belongs to them. With these tricks, researchers can get light-skinned volunteers to see themselves as having a dark-skinned hand, face or entire body.
Before and after they experience the false physicality, the volunteers take a test that measures their implicit racial bias. And they show a clear shift in their attitudes, reflecting more positive associations toward the group to which they temporarily felt they belonged. The study is discussed in a review article in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. [Lara Maister et al, Changing bodies changes minds: owning another body affects social cognition]
Whether these enlightened attitudes last over time is not clear. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Even if you take that step on virtual feet.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]