Skin switching, implicit racial bias and moral enhancement

A recent study has shown that a person’s implicit racial bias can be reduced if she spends some time experiencing her body as dark-skinned. Psychologists in Spain used an immersive virtual reality technique to allow participants to ‘see’ themselves with a different skin colour. They measured the participants’ implicit racial bias before and after the intervention, finding that the embodiment of light-skinned individuals in a dark-skinned virtual body at least temporarily reduced their implicit bias against people who are coded as ‘out-group’ on the basis of skin colour.

Implicit racial bias is an evolved, unconscious tendency to feel more positively towards members of one’s own race (one’s ‘in-group’) than towards members of a different race (members of an ‘out-group’). The bias can be (and was in this study) measured using a version of the implicit association test, which requires participants to quickly catagorise faces (black or white) and words (positive or negative) into groups. Implicit bias is calculated from the differences in speed and accuracy between categorising (white faces, positive words) and (black faces, negative words) compared to (black faces, positive words) and (white faces, negative words). Crucially, implicit racial bias has been shown to be uncorrelated with explicit racial bias – self-reports of negative racial stereotypes. This means that even those who are not consciously averse to people from other racial groups often demonstrate a deep-seated bias against them as an evolutionary hangover. Hearteningly, the authors of the study started from the idea that encoding people by race may be a reversible by-product of human evolution used to detect coalitional alliances. What their study confirmed is that immersive virtual reality provides a powerful tool for placing people into a different race ‘coalition’ by changing their body representation and consequently reducing their implicit aversion to the racial characteristics there represented.

Clearly, reducing the existence and associated behavioural effects of the implicit racial bias would be a good thing. Especially where people who exhibit it (which, (no)thanks to evolution, is most of us) are tasked with making objective and fair decisions about things like employment and justice. However, whether we should classify such an intervention as a moral enhancement will be up for discussion. Whilst the effects are clearly good for society – reduced existence/evidence of deep-seated racism – the mechanism by which this is achieved might be seen to preclude conceptualisation of the outcome as an instance of moral enhancement.

The first concern might be that the intervention changes behaviour via sub-conscious processes: the reduction in evidence of the bias is not achieved by, for example, the individual spending time reflecting on the equality of all people and the importance of treating everyone fairly – it is, too a large extent, out of his control. Two contemporary philosophers disagree on the importance of cognition and conscious reasoning to moral enhancement.

Tom Douglas (2011: 162) understands moral enhancements to be ‘interventions that will expectably leave an individual with more moral (viz ., morally better) motives or behaviour than she would otherwise have had’. Douglas thus allows that moral enhancement could consist in the moral improvement of behavior even where there is no moral improvement in motives.

In response, John Harris (2012: 172) has argued ‘that moral enhancement, properly so called, must not only make the doing of good or right actions more probable and the doing of bad ones less likely, but must also include the understanding of what constitutes right and wrong action…if, “once the enhancement has been initiated, there is no further need for cognition”, then the morally enhanced action is effectively automatic, unconscious and therefore unintended, entirely outside the realm of moral responsibility.

The sub-conscious effects of the immersive virtual reality intervention expectably leave an individual with morally better behavior (so qualify as moral enhancement on Douglas’ account) but these effects are achieved via automatic, unconscious processes (which Harris believes to be inadequate for moral enhancement, as the individual is not responsible for them). Whilst we might think that reductions in discriminatory behavior are more praiseworthy if they result from conscious effort, the problem with the implicit racial bias is that it seems to be immune to attenuation by reason. This is suggested by the data which shows that explicit racial bias is not correlated with implicit racial bias: people who would be genuinely upset by evidence of their implicit bias – who would disown it – nonetheless often still demonstrate it. If the implicit racial bias is not a product of beliefs or reason, it is unlikely that it can easily be attenuated by meditating on one’s believes. So we may – particularly where evolutionary biases are concerned – need sub-conscious interventions to enable us to act more in accordance with our understanding of what constitutes right and wrong action. In such cases, it is not our motives that need improving but our ability to act in consistency with these motives.

However, there may be a further worry to do with the precise nature of the outcome of the intervention.  Whilst the outcome looks like an increase in acceptance and positivity towards others of a different race – something we would see as a virtue – an alternative hypothesis might be that the intervention simply extends one’s concern for oneself – something less virtuous. The psychologists report that they anticipated achieving the effect by inducing a ‘body-ownership illusion in a differently raced avatar’. The implication of perceived ‘body-ownership’ might be that I extend the conception of myself and, correspondingly, my ‘in-group’ so that I also respond positively to my illusory characteristics. If so, it is still a bias towards myself and those similar to me – I’ve just been deceived into thinking that dark-skinned people are similar to me.

But perhaps this is exactly what racial acceptance should be: a blurring of the boundaries of groups. Rather than insisting – for moral virtue – on some persisting conception of ‘out group’ or ‘others’ so that I learn to accept these others despite their difference from myself, I just stop seeing them as different. Given the nature of the implicit racial bias and its frequent incongruity with the racial attitudes and beliefs individuals consciously hold, this sort of intervention may be the only way to attenuate it. The possibility that it does so by causing me to expand the ‘in-group’ that I favor is a step in the right direction even if this necessarily involves some degree of narcissism. Our moral psychology – replete with biases and limitations – is a product of evolution, after all. Not that this is in any way an excuse; rather, it generates a duty to try to overcome these limitations through reflecting on our attitudes, but maybe also though other, less deliberative means. Interventions that reduce implicit racial bias should be pursued if they are shown to have effects persistent enough to make real differences to rates of discrimination. It would certainly be interesting to see what effect a ten-minute-a-day skin swap for judges would have on racial discrimination in our courts.


Douglas, T. (2011), ‘Moral enhancement via direct modulation: a reply to John Harris’, Bioethics, 27 (3): 160–168.

Harris, J. (2012), ‘Ethics is for Bad Guys! Putting the “Moral” into Moral Enhancement’, Bioethics, 27 (3): 169–173.

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