Virtual companion could also reduce social anxiety

Credit: Yanyan Qi et al.

A lot of people feel less anxious in a frightening situation if they don’t have to face it alone.

But what if these people suffer from social anxiety—a disorder characterized by fears of embarrassing themselves in social situations?

Could a virtual companion solve the problem in such cases?

In a new study from the University of Würzburg and others, researchers found that virtual person could also help reduce social anxiety, especially in socially anxious women. Women seem to benefit more from the social presence.

A previous study shows that the presence of a third party can significantly reduce fear responses.

In such situations, social support thus has a stress-buffering effect.

But not all people are equally sociable. In some, the presence of others might actually trigger apprehension or anxiety.

They fear that their companion might notice their anxious responses, such as trembling, flushing or sweating, causing them stress in the first place.

It has been unclear so far whether an avatar is also capable of triggering such a response.

In the current study, the team examined 208 men and women participants.

All the people are exposed to fear-inducing sounds alternating with neutral ones—either in the company of another person or alone.

The researchers determined the level of the participants’ anxiety response through changes in skin conductance.

One group had a real person at their side during the experiment whereas the second group completed the task in virtual reality—accompanied by an avatar that was an image of the real companion.

They found that women respond much more strongly to fear-inducing sounds than men.

The presence of another person reduces anxiety especially in women. This is especially true for women without a social anxiety disorder.

The presence of a virtual person also reduces the anxiety response in women—regardless of the level of social anxiety they experience.

So, a virtual agent may increase feelings of safety in women suffering from a social anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety does not have a comparable effect on men.

The presence of a partner can reduce physiological fear responses, a phenomenon is known as social buffering.

The findings suggest that the social buffering of human fear is shaped by gender and social concern.

In females, the presence of virtual agents can buffer fear, irrespective of individual differences in social concern.

If you care about mental health, please read studies about vegetable that could help lower depression, and 6 daily habits to reduce stress & anxiety.

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The study was conducted by Yanyan Qi et al., and published in Translational Psychiatry.

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