Virtual doppelgangers help men — but not women — improve public speaking skills

February 10, 2021

Men learn behavioral skills better from people who look like them. (Pixabay/Michelle Koebke)

Men improved interpersonal skills like public speaking more than women by seeing a virtual version of themselves perform the skill, according to a new study that used doppelganger role models in a virtual reality setting, raising important questions about using this technology for education and training if it benefits only some learners.

In a paper published Feb. 10 in PLOS One, a team of researchers from Switzerland studied the effectiveness of using a virtual doppelganger as a role model in teaching interpersonal skills, compared to a role model that did not resemble the students. A doppelganger in this case is a virtual human that looks like the participant but behaves independently of them.

The study aimed to train a sample of undergraduate students how to deliver a charismatic speech in front of an audience using virtual role models that either physically resembled the participants or did not. The team hypothesized that the group using the doppelganger role models would find the training more effective, Marianne Schmid Mast, a professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and a co-author of the paper, told The Academic Times

“We tested whether the type of role model led to greater performance in terms of body language persuasiveness and whether participant level of self-efficacy and gender moderate this relationship,” the authors wrote in the paper.

Their hypothesis was partially confirmed, as the doppelganger-based training was the most beneficial for male students low in self-efficacy in particular. People with low self-efficacy believe that they are not able to achieve specific goals. They are easily discouraged and are more likely to give up than people with high levels of self-efficacy, the researchers noted.

Seventy-six students from a Swiss university participated, and they first filled out questionnaires regarding their levels of self-efficacy, social anxiety, trait anxiety, sociodemographic information, prior experience with public speaking and whether they wanted to improve their public speaking skills. 

Photos of the participants were taken in order to develop the virtual doppelgangers, which featured the face of the participant on the body of an avatar of the same gender as the participant.

Six months later, the participants returned and were assigned to go through the training either with their doppelganger role model or with an unknown avatar of the same gender as the participant. After a brief preparation, and using a VR headset, each student was instructed to deliver a three-minute speech in front of a large virtual audience about university fees.

They were told to be both convincing and charismatic during their speech and to pay attention to their nonverbal behavior, such as their hand gestures, posture and vocal qualities. After delivering their speech, the participants watched their virtual role model twice give a charismatic speech on the same topic, receiving instructions to pay attention to the body language of the virtual person.

The participants were questioned about their level of self-efficacy in delivering their own speech a second time, and they then delivered their speech for a second and final time. The authors said that self-efficacy is crucial in the learning process, and they measured it by having the participants rate statements such as “During my speech, it will be easy for me to stick to my aims and deliver a good speech” and “I feel that I will give a good speech.”

“Developing interpersonal skills is not an easy task because it involves mastering several competencies at the same time while taking into account situational factors that are specific to each interaction situation,” the authors wrote in the paper. “Emulating from a role model is an important aspect in interpersonal skills development and training.”

The male participants overall had significantly higher scores of self-efficacy than the female participants. The men who were relatively low in self-efficacy benefited the most from seeing their doppelganger, and they were more persuasive in their body language compared to the men with medium or relatively high levels of self efficacy, and compared to the men who watched the unknown avatar.

The authors explained that by watching their virtual doppelganger deliver a charismatic speech, participants relatively low in self-efficacy likely had a greater motivation to put effort into the task and to persevere than those who watched an unknown avatar performing the same speech.

Public speaking skills are traditionally associated with male prototypes, which can be detrimental for women aspiring to high-status positions, the authors noted, though interestingly the type of virtual role model had no significant effect on the female participants in this study. 

“We know that women on average are more expressive nonverbally than men, in their face but also with their body,” Mast said. “So maybe there was some sort of [effect] that if you’re already very expressive, and then you see a role model that resembles you or doesn’t resemble you, that’s not going to make much of a difference.”

Women in the study may also have been affected by stereotype threat, which happens when people feel at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype that applies to their social group in a specific situation. 

For example, the authors explained, a female manager might worry about being perceived by her subordinates as less competent in her leadership position because she is female, which then results in stress that negatively impacts her performance, thus helping confirm the stereotype that female managers are less competent in their roles than male managers.

“If stereotype threat is at work for women, then seeing their doppelganger might not enhance their performance because they might still fear that they are unable to reproduce the performance of the doppelganger,” the authors said.

According to the paper, these findings could be important for education and training design, as they suggest that doppelganger-based training might only be effective for a specific subset of learners.

Previous related studies have primarily used virtual reality as a tool to reduce public speaking anxiety, and there has not been sufficient research on public speaking development involving the technology of virtual reality.

Mast has used virtual reality in her research for more than 15 years, and has been recently exploring more applied aspects of the technology, including its potential use in learning, teaching and acquiring interpersonal skills. 

“You can see yourself in a video, you can [see] a picture of yourself, but you cannot really encounter yourself in 3D. But you can do that with a virtual human that looks like you,” Mast said. “This is the promise of the technology, and we wanted to try to explore that.”

The study, “Doppelganger-based training: Imitating our virtual self to accelerate interpersonal skills learning,” was published in PLOS One on Feb. 10. Emmanuelle Kleinlogel of the University of Lausanne was the lead author. Marianne Schmid Mast, of the University of Lausanne, and Marion Curdy, João Rodrigues and Carmen Sandi, all of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, served as co-authors.

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