Social Interactions in Virtual Reality

By Valentin Beuchat, Junior Project Manager

On Thursday, February 8, a diverse audience of 35 came to swissnex China to hear Prof. Marianne Schmid Mast present her research on virtual reality. This event was organized by HEC Lausanne, the Faculty of Business and Economics of the University of Lausanne, and swissnex China, which hosted the event in its premises.

After a few words of welcome, Felix Moesner, CEO of swissnex China, gave the stage to Marianne Schmid Mast, who is full professor of Organizational Behavior at HEC Lausanne and also active as editorial board member of Leadership Quarterly and associate editor of the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. But even more impressive, she has been awarded in January 2018 as one of the top 50 most influential living psychologists in the world (according to

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The main topic of the conference was about how we can use virtual reality to study human social behaviors and to train social skills such as public speaking and job interview to mention few examples. Virtual reality enables us to have an interpersonal behavior simulator, creating any sort of social behavior, studying what people do or training them to behave in a specific way, and interacting with virtual humans. And as Marianne Schmid Mast said, “a virtual human can interact: make eye contact, talk, and move around”.

Then, she explained the three main advantages of using immersive virtual reality for interpersonal interaction research. The first advantage being standardization, meaning that virtual human interviewers (in the case of a job interview) behave in the same way with all applicants. The second one is the logistics and costs, with a specific focus on how to empower women in leadership tasks such as public speaking. Results of Marianne Schmid Mast’s study showed that if you are a woman faced with a leadership task, you should get inspired by a successful female role model. Furthermore, if you are a successful female role model, you should get visibility. The third advantage is called manipulation, meaning the environment within the virtual world shapes our interpersonal behavior. For instance, results demonstrated that if you want a male leader to be charismatic, you should give him a posh office!

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Changes in the environment that are hard to do in reality can be done in virtual reality”, summarized Marianne Schmid Mast.

The second part of the conference was dedicated to the use of immersive virtual reality for social skills training. Highlights of this part were that VR allows an easy access to a training partner who is available anytime and never tired. Also, participants suffer from double reality, or as Marianne said: “Experiencing double reality: I know this is not real but I am still afraid of falling”. Another great feature of VR is that you can have an adaptability and variability of the training scenarios (e.g. your training partner can be kind, unpleasant, male, female, etc.). In addition, the audience is now able to provide feedback to the speaker by showing its boredom or chatting with each other for examples. VR is also the place where new experiences are made possible. Imagine yourself in front of an audience, but the venue is a closed-down factory and you speak from the last floor under the roof while being afraid of heights. Last but not least, “you can encounter yourself in VR” said Marianne Schmid Mast.

To conclude this very interesting conference, will machines teach us interpersonal skills as the new scientific empire described in the Brave New World novel by Aldous Huxley? Marianne Schmid Mast claimed that VR is a tool that does not replace the trainer or the expert but can replace the social environment (e.g. the training partner) and it can outsource some aspects of the training for the coach.

After the presentation, a moderated Q&A followed by a networking reception allowed the audience and Marianne Schmid Mast to exchange and further discuss the topic. We would like to extend a warm thank you to Prof. Marianne Schmid Mast for her remarkable presentation, and to the audience – all of whom took part in making this event a success. 

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The warm welcome I got from the swissnex China team was simply outstanding! I also appreciated the exchanges, interest, and open-mindedness toward the topic. It was very inspiring for me.” Prof. Marianne Schmid Mast.