Using Covert Measures in VR to Trace Social Psychological Behavior

November 22, 2021

Andrew Beall

We thoroughly enjoyed our recent webinar with Susan Persky, PhD., of the National Institutes of Health, at which she shared some remarkable research that illustrated the benefits of virtual reality in social psychological research. Susan heads the Health Communication and Behavior Unit and NIH and she has pioneered the use of virtual reality for social psychology. Her work elegantly shows how virtual reality (VR) offers a high degree of experimental control alongside strong ecological validity, a capacity to manipulate any variable of interest, and an ability to trace the physical, nonverbal behavior of the user in a very fine-grained and automated manner. VR improves upon traditional behavioral measurement techniques (e.g., observation and coding) on several fronts as data collection is covert, continuous, passive, and occurs within a controlled context. 

Here recent publication entitled "Tracing physical behavior in virtual reality: A narrative review of applications to social psychology" reviews existing methods for tracing physical behavior in VR, such as gaze tracking and interpersonal distance measurement, and describes how researchers have applied these methods to understand important phenomena within the context of social psychology. To date, primary areas of application have included the assessment of social approach and avoidance, social evaluation and bias, and engagement. The limitations of behavioral tracing methods in VR, as well as future directions for their continued application and extension, are discussed.

Image credit: Dr. Susan Persky


This well considered review article equips viewers with a thorough understanding of behavioral tracing methods that can be implemented in VR, their benefits and drawbacks, the insight they may offer into social processes, and future avenues of work for applying emergent technologies to research questions in social psychology.

We invite you to watch the webinar recording here or read the original article cited below. 

Yaremych, H. E., & Persky, S. (2019). Tracing physical behavior in virtual reality: A narrative review of applications to social psychology. Journal of experimental social psychology, 85, 103845.

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