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Monday, June 17, 2013

Solving race problems with a rubber hand

Lara Maister and Manos Tsakiris of the University of London, and Natalie Sebanz and G√ľnther Knoblich of Central European University have a novel approach to combatting racism. They give people the rubber hand illusion treatment.

One of the reasons that racism is so difficult to eradicate is that many people genuinely feel less empathy for members of other races. The insidious thing is that they may not even be aware that they feel this way. 

If they don't know they have these feelings, then how do we know they do? One way is by using Implicit Association Tests (IAT). These tests ask people to sort words or images into groups as quickly as they can. For example, a volunteer might have to decide whether to put a lemon in the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ category. People are much quicker at sorting things in a way that makes sense to them. A racist might put a dark-skinned face in the ‘good’ column for the benefit of observers, but he’ll be a lot slower about it than a person who really believes dark-skinned people are good. 

Sure enough, even people who don't consider themselves bigoted and who make every effort to act and speak in unbiased ways often display inherent prejudices when subjected to these kinds of tests.

This sounds like really bad news for combatting racial prejudice and misunderstanding. However, Lara Maister and her colleagues have some good news for us. It turns out you can make people more sensitive to the plight of outgroups, and all it takes is a rubber hand. Or more specifically, the rubber hand illusion.

First, what is the rubber hand illusion? Watch this clip to find out.



The interesting twist is that the researchers gave light-skinned Caucasians dark-skinned rubber hands.

Before the experiment, the light-skinned participants were given IATs to measure their unconscious attitudes toward dark-skinned people. Once this baseline level of racism was established, the participants were treated to the rubber hand illusion with a dark-skinned rubber hand. Immediately afterward, they were asked to rate how much the rubber hand had seemed like a part of their own bodies. Finally, the volunteers repeated the IAT.

People who felt the illusion of ownership of the dark rubber hand more strongly also became implicitly more positive toward dark-skinned people. Apparently, people subconsciously think, ‘hey, if I’m part black myself, they can’t be that bad.’

This doesn’t surprise me. Anything that makes the ‘other’ more familiar is going to reduce fear and animosity. I’m not sure whether this information will prove to be that useful though. For one thing, we can’t require that citizens undergo rubber hand treatment, and even if we did there’s no guarantee that the effects would last. Still, it’s good to know that racial attitudes aren’t as deeply ingrained as we might think.


Maister, L., Sebanz, N., Knoblich, G., & Tsakiris, M. (2013). Experiencing ownership over a dark-skinned body reduces implicit racial bias Cognition, 128 (2), 170-178 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.04.002.