Studying the Influence of Single Social Interactions on Approach and Avoidance Behavior - A Multimodal Investigation in Immersive Virtual Reality


Adaptive social approach and avoidance behavior is of substantial importance for social functioning and an imbalance in these behavioral tendencies may constitute a risk factor for the etiology and maintenance of mental illness. Hence, learning from social experiences is important to develop adequate social behaviors. To investigate these processes in a naturalistic environment with high ecological validity and experimental control, we developed an immersive virtual environment that combines a social conditioning procedure with a social approach-avoidance test. In this environment, we investigated whether participants differing in trait social anxiety develop adaptive approach and avoidance tendencies towards differently conditioned virtual agents on a behavioral level (whole-body movement, interpersonal distance), regarding active exploration (gaze behavior) as well as on a subjective level (subjectively perceived likeability, fear, and anger). Furthermore, autonomic responses (pupillary, electrodermal and cardiovascular responses) were continuously measured and compared between conditions. Overall, we observed significant effects of the social conditioning procedure on participants’ exploration behavior, i.e., the interpersonal distance and visual attention towards the virtual agents, and on participants’ subjective ratings of perceived likeability, fear, and anger. While there were also differences in autonomic responses immediately following the social encounters, we did not find any long-term adaptations that persisted during the social approach-avoidance test. Trait social anxiety was associated with higher fear ratings and modulated the adaptations of interpersonal distance. These findings demonstrate the potential of immersive virtual environments for examining social learning processes under conditions resembling real-life social encounters.

European Meeting on Human Fear Conditioning, Heeze, Netherlands
Sabrina Gado
Sabrina Gado
PhD student

My research interests combine psychology with technology.