Using virtual reality to overcome unconscious biases

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As Oscar Wilde might have wrote "you never get a second chance to make a good first impression". In fact, it takes a long time to change certain judgements that are made when we first meet someone, and sometimes our first impression can be far from the truth. It is influenced by what we can call unconscious bias, distortions of reality, generalisations that influence our social interaction and lead us to express judgement. Professor Marianne Schmid Mast from the Economics and Business Faculty (HEC) of the University of Lausanne is a psychologist with a doctoral degree from the University of Zurich and an extended post-doctoral experience at Northeastern University in Boston. She is internationally known for her studies on how stereotypes play a role in our interactions and was named one of the 50 most influential psychologists alive. Last week she visited USI for a workshop proposed within the activities of the Academic Senate and organised by the Equal Opportunities Service.

Her research begins with the observation of behaviours, studying how people interact in hierarchical structures, how they perceive themselves and how they communicate with each other. Director of a virtual reality laboratory at the Faculty of Economics, University of Lausanne, she uses computer-based automatic sensing to analyse nonverbal behaviour. Schmid Mast provides various examples of research where virtual reality has helped replicate complex situations. In her work she also examined how people change their leadership style when they work in an office on the ground floor or in an identical but higher floor, a change of perspective simulated by virtual reality: "Preliminary results show that men in the high status office (on the sixth floor) behaved more charismatically than when they were on the ground floor" explains Schmid Mast. Virtual reality can also be used to recreate social situations, for example in the analysis of behaviours and techniques adopted while giving a speech in front of an audience, where virtual reality allows to address a large number of listeners who are always attentive for the required amount of time.

Stereotypes can be related to gender, age, nationality, sexual orientation or religion. Take, for example, the unconscious stereotypes related to women: scientific research shows that young female-candidates are often seen as inexperienced, as opposed to the male peer who, because of his young age, is considered dynamic. (Carvalho 2010). Another research (Banchefsky, Westfall, Park, & Judd, 2016) shows that more feminine faces of female scientist professors are rated to be more likely a school teacher than a scientist - no effect for men. So where do unconscious stereotypes come from? As Schmid Mast explains they often depend on the social group the other person is from, which is sometimes different than ours. Quoting the theory of social identity : each of us classifies other people into different categories according to his/her own observations. The group we belong to defines our social identity and this categorisation is our "comfort" zone. How can someone overcome such categorisation?

Schmid Mast mentioned various techniques to overcome the unconscious biases that accompany us in everyday life. The first step: to become aware of one’s own stereotypes or cultural assumptions and to find the motivation to overcome them by digging into our own resources and move away from automatic cognitive activation and gain cognitive control of the situation. To do so, strategies must be adopted. It is advisable to broaden one’s perspective , to see the situation from different angles and to force ourselves to think about the external factors that lead us to behave in a certain way. The strategy called "stereotype replacement" involves recognising that a response is based on stereotypes, labelling the response as stereotypical, and thinking of how the biased response could be avoided in the future and replace it with an unbiased response: "it has happened to me to go up to young female researchers to ask whether their work was their PhD and then they said they were assistant professors. I used the stereotype that professors are old. Now each time I ask a young person about her work, I ask whether she is a professor. So if she is, I am not embarrassed and if she is not, I tell her: But you will be one day!" says Schmid Mast. We also tend to surround ourselves with people who are very similar to us, who think in a similar way. Another strategy is to get in touch with the "out-group" , to relate consciously with people we do not know and who are not part of our circle of reference.

Schmid Mast also studies doctor-patient communication , in particular the gender difference between female and male doctors, how they communicate and how it is perceived by patients. In view of the arrival of new students from Zurich and Basel for the Master’s Degree in Medicine at USI in 2020, we also wanted to explore this aspect of her research and seek advice for future doctors. "We typically find gender differences in that female doctors do not necessarily get credit for using a patient-centred communication style whereas male doctors do" In this context, she used virtual reality for the study of doctor-patient communication. "I have used VR for the study of physician-patient communication, we manipulated virtual physician dominance and virtual physician caring in their communication style and observed that analogue patients reacted differently to those communication styles. Patients would provide less medical information when interviewed by a dominant virtual physician, which makes diagnosis more difficult. With the virtual physician, we were able to manipulate dominance and caring independently of each other to test their respective effect on patients, something that would not be so easily possible in real physician-patient interactions". 


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