The Rubber Hand illusion never fails to teach us new things - not just about neuroscience, but also about culture.
If you are not familiar with the Rubber Hand illusion, it shows that the combination of seeing a touch on a rubber hand and feeing a touch on your own creates the illusion that the fake hand is now part of your body. In a new paper, scholars did that; they asked participants to look at a fake hand being touched, while at the same time the experimenter touched the participants' own hand, hidden out of view.
But there was a twist. The paper authors were testing whether people can experience a hand of a different skin color and whether this would change possible racial biases. Well, obviously color shouldn't matter if rubber is convincing but the goal was to see if a rubber hand of a different color caused people to be less biased.
Maybe it does. Using Caucasian participants, the scientists tested their implicit attitudes towards people with dark skin before using a dark-skinned rubber hand to make them feel as if this was their own hand. They then tested their racial attitudes again after the experiment. They found that when white Caucasians are under the illusion that they have dark skin, their racial bias changes - in a positive way. Yes, they were all a little racist, even if they had never done anything racist. That is the beauty of things like the Implicit Association Test. 100% of people will be what psychologists need them to be in order for them to show people how they can be less of it.
The results showed that the more intense the participants' illusion of owning the dark-skinned rubber hand, the more positive their racial attitudes became. When people got darker skin, they became more positive about people with darker skin. We need to poll the folks at TMZ and find out how many of these tests the Kardashian family took.
Fig. 1. (A) Experimental set-up of the rubber hand illusion. The participant observed a rubber hand being touched with a paintbrush, whilst their own hand was stimulated in the same manner. (B) The ownership questionnaire, measuring illusory ownership over the rubber hand. Agreement was rated on a 7-point Likert scale. Credit and link: Cognition
"This study has important implications for changing and reducing negative racial attitudes," said researcher Lara Maister from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway University. "It comes down to a perceived similarity between white and dark skin. The illusion creates an overlap, which in turn helps to reduce negative attitudes because participants see less difference between themselves and those with dark skin."
Dr. Manos Tsakiris, Reader in Neuropsychology at Royal Holloway and who led the research and had a similar paper (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2012.04.011) on the topic last year, said, "Often formed at an early age, negative racial attitudes are thought to remain relatively stable throughout adulthood. Our results show that we can positively alter them by understanding how the brain is processing sensory information from our bodies and that of others. It will be interesting to replicate the effect with different social groups and see if we can generalise these findings outside of a laboratory setting."