In the spring of 2003, Cade McCall was studying clinical psychology in New York. Today, the third-year University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) social psychology graduate student has switched coasts and career tracks.
McCall uses virtual reality to study social behavior with his adviser, Jim Blascovich, PhD. In their lab, they immerse participants in virtual worlds, where the participants might meet people with startling facial birthmarks, shoot at "bad guys" in a gunfight or traverse cliffs with a partner's encouragement.
McCall acknowledges that his grad school path has been winding. But, he says, a common thread has united his work: his interest in people's implicit attitudes and beliefs.
"Explicit measures can reveal a lot, but I've always been skeptical about what people say about themselves," he says.
Virtual reality, he says, provides a way to measure a host of variables--from the angle of a person's head to facial expressions--that can reveal their attitudes about gender, race and other topics.
FROM CLINICAL TO SOCIAL
McCall first became interested in implicit attitudes while studying for his master's degree at New York's New School for Social Research. Although he was in a clinical program, he began working with social psychologist Nilanjana Dasgupta, PhD, who studies implicit prejudice and stereotyping. For his master's thesis, he used an implicit association test and found that men placed in a low-status position compensate by responding more quickly to words associated with power and leadership.
As he worked on the research, McCall says, he realized that he wanted to pursue social psychology--and that he'd need to switch graduate programs to do so. In the end, he came to UCSB specifically to work in Blascovich's virtual reality lab.
In McCall's first lab project, he examined whether people's "proxemics"--the way they use space in social interactions, including body orientation, head orientation, eye contact and other variables--could predict their attitudes about race. In the experiment, the researchers told the participants that they'd be participating in a violent video game. Then, the participants suited up in the virtual reality gear--a headset that surrounded them with the sights and sounds of the virtual world, and a body-location tracker and head-orientation tracker. In the virtual world, they met and exchanged greetings with a virtual "agent" they would later fight. Half of the participants met a black agent, and half met a white agent. Then, the participants were instructed to move away from the agent, turn around and begin a gunfight with their virtual foe.
Using data from the body- and head-orientation trackers, McCall and his colleagues found that people's positions relative to the agent during the meeting predicted how aggressively they would shoot at the black agent, but not the white agent. People who stayed further away from the black agent, or who didn't look directly at him, were more likely to later shoot for his head--implying that the participants held some implicit racial bias.
In his new study, McCall is using virtual reality to study people's reactions to stigmatizing physical disfigurements--specifically, to a person with a large facial birthmark. In a 2001 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study (Vol. 80, No. 2, pages 253-267), Blascovich found that when people interact with someone who has a stigmatizing physical condition, they have the same physiological reactions--such as vasoconstriction and decreased blood flow--as people who feel threatened.
"Even if it's a cooperative situation, people still show this cardiovascular evidence of threat," Blascovich says.
He and McCall want to find out how basic this reaction is. To do so, they've designed an experiment that takes place half in the real world and half in the virtual world. First, participants meet a person--a confederate of the experimenters--who either has a birthmark (applied with stage makeup) or does not. The participant is told that they'll be interacting with this person in virtual reality. Then, in the virtual reality world, the participant meets a virtual representation of the confederate, whose birthmark has disappeared or whose face contains a birthmark.
The researchers hypothesize that if a participant shows cardiovascular evidence of threat when they talk to a virtual person with a birthmark--even if they know that the person's real-world counterpart is birthmark-free--then that indicates the reaction takes place at a very basic, automatic level. Conversely, if someone knows that the real-world confederate has a birthmark but doesn't have this cardiovascular response to a birthmark-free virtual person, then that suggests that the reaction is a higher-level, more deliberative one.
Of course, there are some tricky aspects to studying the real world via a virtual one. "I certainly don't think that you can just assume that there's a transparent relationship between virtual reality and the real world," McCall says.
He and his colleagues learn quickly that seemingly small things in the virtual world can make a big difference. Most participants find virtual people that don't blink, for example, very creepy.
"Sometimes it's a pilot study of one," McCall says. "You try it out and say 'ugh.'"
But on a larger scale, he says, virtual reality works. Even though the characters in the virtual world might look cartoonish, people are willing to interact with them in a realistic way. And photographic realism isn't the bottom line anyway, McCall says--behavioral realism is.
The virtual system allows researchers to track participants' head and body movements precisely, giving researchers an unbeatable look at key indicators of implicit attitudes. And the system allows researchers to create experimental designs, like the facial birthmark study, and situations and characters that would be otherwise impossible.
"There's a world of opportunities here," McCall says. "It's like being at a buffet."