Virtual reality unconscious bias training: does it work?

Virtual reality headset

Lisa Jobson is a specialist in talent management and management consulting and has extensive experience in supporting businesses to determine focus and the strategic importance of diversity.

Unconscious bias training is gaining prominence. Following the Black Lives Matter protests, it’s being talked about on both sides of the political spectrum – positively and negatively – and has the backing of big business.

The training is designed to ensure that implicit biases we are not consciously aware of do not affect our decision making and cause discrimination. Up until now, it has been primarily used by businesses and public bodies, face-to-face, or remotely via video calls, but an innovation taking the gaming world by storm could help bring more effective training to even more participants.

Virtual reality (VR) is a new frontier for companies and researchers wishing to take advantage of the technology’s ability to simulate immersive, convincing worlds and experiences. What does it mean for unconscious bias training, and does it work?

How does virtual reality unconscious bias training work?

When you put on a VR headset, you see through the eyes of another. Up until recently, this has typically meant strapping into a rollercoaster or shooting aliens in space. However, the underlying ability of the format to display different perspectives – especially those we have very little understanding of – offers huge possibilities for reducing a wide range of unconscious biases, including unconscious gender bias.

When used alongside unconscious bias training, VR can:

  • Show men what it is like to be on the receiving end of everyday workplace sexism
  • Show white people how racism is experienced by Black and Minority Ethnic people
  • Give able-bodied people an insight into navigating the workplace as a person in a wheelchair
  • Let executives and managers experience work as a junior team member

Typically, at the start of VR training of this sort, the user is placed in front of a mirror. They see the character they are embodying in the reflection – moving their body at the same time as the user. This creates a powerful connection between the participant and their character that translates into increased understanding and empathy.

Suddenly, we are not just observers of bias, but the recipients. This new insight sticks, influencing our actions and reducing our likelihood of unconsciously discriminating against others, long after we’ve taken off the headset.

That is not all though; user reactions – as observers or characters – can be captured and analysed by HR teams, providing valuable data on the type and extent of bias within a group, or what sort of common reactions are elicited by common scenarios and settings.

VR unconscious bias training sounds tremendous on paper, but does it work in practice?

Is virtual reality unconscious bias training effective?

Research from 2016 shows that unconscious bias training doesn’t work effectively if interventions are delivered in a top-down, prescriptive, and lecturing way. Training must not be overly negative, or it will invite pushback from attendees.

Instead, it must be positive, engaging and designed to improve communication between team members – especially those who might discriminate or be discriminated by one another.

That is why VR unconscious bias training holds so much potential, and thankfully, this is matched by the research.

VR is already considered a promising means of leadership assessment and training and has been used across healthcare, education and industry. In research from 2009, brainwave analysis of those using it were shown to respond similarly to when presented with real-life stimuli, and subsequent 2013 research found that VR made people feel truly immersed in the worlds delivered via headset.

As expected, it is this immersion that delivers results. In 2020 research from PwC, VR soft skills training was found to be highly effective, with 40% of students using VR (v-learners) feeling more confident in their skills after training than classroom-only students, and 35% more than e-learners.

PwC’s v-learners also felt 3.75 times more emotionally connected to their course content than classroom learners, and 2.3 times more than e-learners. Importantly, 75% realised they were not as inclusive as they thought they were – a crucial step if unconscious bias training is to be effective.

These studies explain why multiple studies have found VR experiences reduce unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias):

  • In a 2017 study, those embodying a different skin colour to their own in a VR simulation were more likely to view those with their real-life skin colour as being in the out-group
  • In research from 2018, Caucasian participants immersed in a VR experience where they embodied a Black person subsequently displayed less unconscious racial bias in a mock courtroom setting than those that experienced the same VR experience as a white person
  • In a study from 2016, embodying a Black character reduced implicit bias for white participants – and even reduced bias in those whose VR character was also white

How does EW Group intend on utilising VR unconscious bias training?

VR unconscious bias training has a bright future, and we believe it will have a huge part to play in the future of equality, diversity, and inclusion. In many ways, it builds on point-of-view, video-based training exercises our team has used for many years.

We have already started working with businesses to develop VR training modules well-suited to their realities and priorities. This has primarily taken place for businesses and staff that are not office-based; those that are constantly interacting with customers and the public. This is due to VR training’s ability to simulate situations that are difficult for conventional unconscious bias training to cover.

However, while VR training certainly holds a lot of promise, we see it being most effective in a blended learning context. This would mean participants experience VR training exercises on their own alongside completing tried-and-tested group or e-learning course content, thereby ensuring a fully rounded learning experience for every staff member.

Learn more about unconscious bias training with EW Group

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