New imaging technology has made it possible for people with social anxiety to watch themselves interacting with others in virtual scenarios. In a recent study, researchers scripted over 100 video scenes like using public transit, buying a drink, shopping, and talking to a stranger at an art gallery and inserted study participants into the scene so that they could practice interaction in a low-pressure situation and observe their own social behaviors.

The simulation used by the researchers recorded the participants and inserted them into a video scenario in real-time. The creator of this virtual environment system said that it was designed to benefit people with social anxieties. Rather than using a head-mounted camera, which anxious people find awkward, the technology uses an out-of-body perspective. This allows people to see themselves interacting on the screen.

Dr. Lina Gega of Norwich Medical School explained that people with social anxiety worry that they will bring attention to themselves and be judged harshly by people around them, so they avoid eye contact or avoid social situations. However, “this sort of behavior draws attention to people with social anxiety and feeds into their beliefs that they don’t fit in. We wanted to see whether practicing social situations in a virtual environment could help.”

Virtual environments helped the participants to manage social behaviors like maintaining eye contact, making small talk, and looking at the speaker instead of the floor. As part of a larger course of cognitive behavioral therapy, the simulation aided participants in identifying and adjusting their anxious behaviors. Because the participants were able to rehearse their behavior as many times as needed, they were encouraged to take greater social risks, according to the research.

Although the evidence indicates a positive effect on participants, the participants themselves had mixed feelings. One reported that his confidence for real life social situations before the study was around 30%, but increased to 50% at the end of the study. However, another participant characterized the simulation as “weird,” noting that watching himself interact on the screen was uncomfortable.

The research indicates that rehearsing behavior and being able to test out social skills in a low-stakes environment is beneficial in mitigating poor social behaviors.

This research is published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

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