Mahzarin Banaji: "Social Cognition in VR"


Monday, October 24, 2016, 11:30am to 1:00pm


Maxwell Dworkin 119

Speaker: Mahzarin Banaji

Title: "Social Cognition in VR"


Since the 1950’s, social psychologists have been attempting to create a “virtual reality” in the laboratory to understand complex social behavior. For example, Stanley Milgram, interested in what led to the pervasive obedience to authority in Nazi Germany, created a laboratory analog by asking individual subjects to obey an authority figure who asked the subject to harm another human being. The result was shocking because it revealed that a large percentage of people, like ourselves, will indeed obey a mild authority figure and do things we ourselves would consider abhorrent. Such experiments can no longer be conducted because of the serious ethical issues involved in deceiving subjects in the laboratory. Today, social psychology has turned to understanding mental processes using a variety of harmless tasks that can teach us a great deal without posing the ethical challenges of the earlier work. Our own work, using the Implicit Association Test is an example, with complete transparency about what the experience for the subject will be.   

However, many real problems in the social world cannot be studied in the lab if we rely on these innocuous procedures. The question we face is this: can we use technology to neither deceive participants nor give up creating what we call “mundane realism” – the feeling that the lab experience is (close to) what a person might experience in the real world. This is where VR enters the conversation.  I would like to discuss what the early studies have shown.  The hope is that those in attendance will help us realize its full potential (given our lack of knowledge of VR itself) and more importantly, to decide if there’s interest in collaborating on experiments on what we might call “Social Cognition in VR.” These experiments would study how we view others who are similar or different from us (along lines of gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, nationality, social class, etc.). These experiments would also attempt to shift one’s sense of self in VR to be somebody who is other than the natural self. The extent to which social categories we belong to are flexible and changeable is an important question. Facebook acquired Occulus and there is interest on their part in collaboration if Harvard has the appropriate team, which in my mind would require psychologists and computer scientists.  A person from Facebook will be in attendance via Skype during this seminar. 


Mahzarin Banaji taught at Yale for 15 years where she was Ruben Post Halleck Professor of Psychology.  Since 2002 she has been Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology at Harvard while also serving as the first Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is currently Harvard College Professor, in recognition for excellence in teaching and advising and will be Chair of the Department of Psychology in 2016.

Banaji is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Herbert Simon Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the British Academy.  She has received several awards, among them Yale’s Hixon Prize for teaching excellence, a Guggenheim fellowship, a citation from the President of the American Psychological Association, the Lewin Award from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the Diener Prize for outstanding contributions to social psychology.  Banaji was named William James Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science for significant lifetime contributions to the basic science of psychology, an organization of which she also served as president.  In 2014 Banaji received Barnard College’s highest honor, the Medal of Distinction and honorary degrees from Smith College, Colgate University and the University of Helsinki.    

Professor Banaji studies unconscious thinking and feeling as they unfold in social group contexts and influence decisions about people’s worth, goodness, and competence. She is the author of the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People with Anthony Greenwald, published by Random House.