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Racial Bias and In-Group Bias in Virtual Reality Courtrooms

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We filmed videos of criminal trials using three-dimensional virtual reality (VR) technology, prosecuted by actual prosecutors and defended by actual defense attorneys in a real courtroom. This is the first paper that utilizes VR technology in a non-computer-animated setting. We alter only the race of the defendants, holding all activity in the courtroom constant, to create arguably perfect counterfactuals. Law students and economics students made conviction and sentencing decisions in these trials that differed only in defendants’ race. White evaluators are harsher toward minority defendants in both conviction and sentencing. Minority evaluators are harsher toward minorities in conviction but more lenient in assigning prison terms. This pattern of behavior leads to significant bias against minorities at all stages—conviction, prison sentence, and fine—which is partly a reflection of the numerical majority of the evaluators being white. The same racial bias is observed in the decisions of practicing attorneys.

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