Psychologist Marianne Schmid Mast uses WorldViz VR to uncover link between power hierarchies and social interaction

client: University of Lausanne, Switzerland

research field: Organizational Psychology/Behavioral Psychology

equipment used: Vizard 5 VR Software Toolkit4 PPT E motion-tracking system, three networked Oculus Rifts.

Professor Marianne Schmid Mast has used WorldViz Virtual Reality technology over the past ten years to conduct research. She currently employs a state-of-the-art co-presence enabled wide-area walking VR system, which runs on the newest iteration of our Virtual Reality Software Toolkit, Vizard 5, to head her most recent research endeavors. One of her main areas of research addresses the question of how social power and hierarchies affect interpersonal interactions and social evaluations. In these studies, being able to repeat social cues as consistent and controllable stimuli is very important. Schmid Mast chose to use a wide-area walking Virtual Reality system from WorldViz to achieve this:

“WorldViz Virtual Reality technology has enabled me to control and standardize social interactions between a study participant and an avatar so that my empirical results are less noisy – all without compromising ecological validity.”

Professor Schmid Mast is currently shifting gears to lead a research and development project that will generate a “social sensing computing tool”. Schmid Mast and her team hope to develop a computer algorithm that will interpret global human social actions and then produce specific responses based on those readings. The application would automatically detect things like voice quality and behavioral patterns (like self-touch or fidgeting). According to Schmid Mast, the finished product will be important for future avatar-based Virtual Reality applications, especially for research that investigates social behavior. Below are two recent examples of the studies conducted in her lab using WorldViz VR technology.


Empowerment and Social Evaluation

In 2013, Professor Schmid Mast and her colleague Petra Schmid investigated the relationship between self-perception, physiological arousal, and perceived competence or persuasiveness during a social evaluation situation. Schmid Mast took two groups: one of participants who were prompted to think about themselves in powerful situations and a control group and put both in a simulated job interview (“self-presentation task”) with a live human actor. The study confirmed Schmid Mast’s hypothesis that high power priming reduces fear of negative evaluation and physiological arousal in a social evaluation. However, fear of negative evaluation and physiological arousal were uncorrelated. The second study attempted to account for two possible confounding variables: movement as explanation for physiological arousal; and the interviewer acting differently toward the two groups. In order to eliminate the second possible confounding variable, Schmid Mast used an avatar in a virtual environment as the interviewer. Although the actors in Schmid Mast’s first study were well-trained, using an avatar ensured complete control over and consistency within the interviewer’s behavior. This second study generated the same findings as before, which not only re-confirmed Schmid Mast’s hypothesis, but confirmed that avatars in virtual environments elicit the same physiological and behavioral responses as real people in controlled lab settings, supporting the already well-established consensus that Virtual Reality is a valid and agreeable facilitator of psychological research.

Successful female leaders empower women’s behavior in leadership tasks

In this study, Professor Schmid Mast, along with her collaborators Ioana Latu, Dario Bombari and Joris Lammers, investigates what social psychologists call stereotype threat, and whether it affects women presenting to and persuading an audience. Women are often thought to be less dominant than men, and, according to stereotype threat theory, this stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; women worry about being perceived as subordinate and that worry manifests itself in their performance during social evaluation situations. Schmid Mast hypothesizes that exposing a group of participants to a picture of either

German Chancellor Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton will empower only the women when giving a speech to a virtual audience. Empowerment was measured by self-evaluation, speech length, and perceived speech quality. WorldViz’s Vizard 5 Virtual Reality Toolkit allowed Schmid Mast to construct a virtual environment consisting of an audience of avatars in a small room. Schmid Mast then simply added or subtracted the independent variables – a picture at the back of the room of either Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, or Angela Merkel. Building the virtual environment in Vizard guaranteed consistency among all control groups. The study found that indeed only women’s performances were improved when exposed to the pictures of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton (as opposed to no picture or a picture of Bill Clinton).

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