Intergroup contact is widely recognised by social scientists as an effective means to improve relations between different social groups (Allport, 1954). The basic assumption of Allport’s contact hypothesis is that through exposure to and interaction with outgroup members, one can learn about an outgroup and challenge stereotypes thus forming more positive impressions and consequently reducing outgroup prejudice.
However, contact is less likely to occur in highly segregated contexts such as post-conflict societies, in which negative perceptions persist and are reinforced by ethnic, ideological, religious or even physical divisions. In Northern Ireland, despite the implementation of integration policies, almost 94% of schools in Northern Ireland are divided along religious lines. Moreover, the number of so-called “Peace lines” consisting of walls, gates, and iron fences separating Catholic and Protestant districts in Belfast has actually increased since the end of the conflict in 1998 (Geoghegan, 2015). In other words, people grow up with relatively scarce contact with members of the other community.
Faced with this scenario, scholars have tested alternative contact strategies such as computer-mediated contact with relative success. Nevertheless, new technology-supported venues such as virtual reality (VR) have been less fully explored with regard to their potential as an effective form of intergroup contact. Helped by a headset for image-display and a tracking system, current technology supporting VR integrates multimedia systems that allow users to experience a full 3D interaction and communicate with others through virtual representations of themselves, or avatars. Most VR technologies allow users to customise their avatar characteristics, providing them with certain autonomy and control over their self-presentations. As VR technology has become more economically and ergonomically accessible over the last years, with users even accessing VR through their smartphones, it is imperative to analyse the extent to which contact in VR favours intergroup relationships.
The primary objective of this proposal is to test the effectiveness of VR-contact on reducing sectarian prejudice and promoting prosocial behaviours between Catholics and Protestants in the post-conflict context of Northern Ireland. In particular, this study seeks to compare different contact strategies and to analyse the mechanisms derived from avatar customization and VR's exclusive features to reproduce human communication (i.e., embodiment, immersion, presence). The project is expected to identify different VR conditions under which better contact outcomes can be expected, and it will establish the basis for the development of accessible tools in VR for those involved in community development work, peacebuilding, or social networking at local or even transnational level.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 832662, with the valuable support of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council (NICRC).