Aymerich-Franch, L., Kizilcec, R.F., & Bailenson, J.N. (2014). The Relationship between Virtual Self Similarity and Social Anxiety. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8 (944).
In virtual reality (VR), it is possible to embody avatars that are dissimilar to the physical self. We examined whether embodying a dissimilar self in VR would decrease anxiety in a public speaking situation. We report the results of an observational pilot study and two laboratory experiments. In the pilot study (N = 252), participants chose an avatar to use in a public speaking task. Trait public speaking anxiety correlated with avatar preference, such that anxious individuals preferred dissimilar self-representations. In Study 1 (N = 82), differences in anxiety during a speech in front of a virtual audience were compared among participants embodying an assigned avatar whose face was identical to their real self, an assigned avatar whose face was other than their real face, or embodied an avatar of their choice. Anxiety differences were not significant, but there was a trend for lower anxiety with the assigned dissimilar avatar compared to the avatar looking like the real self. Study 2 (N = 105) was designed to explicate that trend, and further investigated anxiety differences with an assigned self or dissimilar avatar. The assigned dissimilar avatar reduced anxiety relative to the assigned self avatar for one measure of anxiety. We discuss implications for theories of self-representation as well as for applied uses of VR to treat social anxiety.