Empathic Labs
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Empathic Labs

Virtual Reality may Enrich the Science of Social Behavior

A project from the Digital Psychotherapy Lab

Studying social behavior scientifically can be a difficult task: Real interactions between people typically lack standardization, but standardized experiments are often so artificial that their representativeness towards everyday-life situations remains questionable. New evidence suggests that the use of Virtual Reality (VR) can play a role in overcoming this dilemma.

Marius Rubo works as a postdoc researcher at the Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy workgroup at Fribourg University (head: Prof. Simone Munsch). He studies how VR is perceived and how it can be used to improve the assessment of psychological phenomena such as social attention.

Studying social behavior scientifically: It’s complicated

The social behavior of humans is so multifaceted that its investigation spans over a variety of scientific fields such as sociology, social psychology, clinical psychology or behavioral economics. Even in an everyday encounter, people orchestrate their behavior in ways which are more complex than we can currently model: interpersonal distances are regulated, body postures communicate attitudes or mutual expectations, gaze contact is sought in some moments and avoided in others. A variety of professions — perhaps most intensely psychotherapists — are trained in systematically evaluating this rich flow of information and employing it to solve interpersonal problems. At the same time, the scientific analysis of social behavior does not live up to many practitioners’ expectations in providing tangible data regarding concrete problems (e.g.: What can and what can’t we infer when we observe that someone avoids gaze contact with us?). Scientists in the field, on the other hand, are confronted with an abundance of influencing variables which are difficult to control for statistically (e.g. individuals’ personality traits and relationship history, the social hierarchy expressed in a situation) and a methodological dilemma: When observing real human interactions in field research, a variety of potentially important variables may remain uncontrolled; by contrast, when employing standardized laboratory tasks (e.g. when participants view videos of social situations while their gaze is being tracked), it remains unclear how behavior in the laboratory relates to real social encounters.

Using VR to combine the best of laboratory and field research

Several researchers have speculated that the use of VR may allow to create a bridge between these two methodological approaches by immersing participants in situations which are perceived as more lifelike compared to the viewing of videos, but which can still be controlled at high levels of detail by experimenters. While generally still lacking broader empirical evidence, this idea is now backed by a recent study of ours (Rubo & Gamer, 2021). In this study, participants viewed an avatar either in VR or on a computer screen as it repeatedly approached them and sometimes smiled at them. Similarly to what one would expect in a real social encounter, participants in the VR group relatively robustly reciprocated the avatar’s gaze, while this behavior was clearly weaker in participants viewing the same scene on a computer monitor. The study therefore provides clear evidence that VR can constitute a methodological advancement over more traditional laboratory setups when investigating social behavior. At the same time, an abundance of open research questions persists (e.g. In which important ways does VR not resemble real social encounters?; What do individual characteristics in social behavior in such a VR scenario reveal about a person?) and will hopefully be addressed in the future.

The virtual scenario employed to study social attention behavior in participants. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKUeDtUD4kY for a video.

Rubo, M., & Gamer, M. (2021). Stronger reactivity to social gaze in virtual reality compared to a classical laboratory environment. British Journal of Psychology, 112(1), 301–314. https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjop.12453



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Marius Rubo

Marius Rubo

I'm a researcher at the University of Fribourg Switzerland.