Virtual Reality elicits natural social behavior

In recent years, research in social attention and cognition (again) saw a discussion around the appropriateness of presenting stimuli on a computer screen – e.g. human faces displaying various emotional states – when investigating psychological phenomena. A series of studies raised concerns that effects observed under such conditions may not generalize towards the real world and therefore lack ecological validity. At the same time, problems with experimental control continue to trouble real-world research approaches. As a possible solution to excel both at ecological validity and experimental control, virtual reality (VR) has been proposed by various authors, but evidence for its superiority over traditional laboratory setups remained scarce. In a recent study, we now found that participants reacted more strongly to the social signals of a virtual avatar when they were immersed in VR compared to when they watched the same scene on a computer monitor. Specifically, participants in VR tended to more strongly look back at a virtual conspecific smiling at them, suggesting a relatively natural social behavior in this artificial laboratory environment. The study therefore provides backup for the idea that using VR may be a fruitful approach to investigating social attention and cognition.

Rubo, M., & Gamer, M. (2020). Stronger reactivity to social gaze in virtual reality compared to a classical laboratory environment. British Journal of Psychology. (doi: 10.1111/bjop.12453)