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Study reveals 1 counterintuitive technique helps men beat low self-esteem

Are you your own best role model?

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Gëzim Fazliu / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

It's an all too familiar feeling — your palms are sweaty, knees are weak, and your arms are heavy. You're about to get on stage and deliver a speech. Whether it is at a wedding, a work conference, or a family reunion, public speaking is more often a source of dread than it is inspiration.

The reason why is partially to do with our biology — even disrupting circuits in our brain, according to some studies — but thankfully, science may hold the answer to this problem, too. In a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists reveal how a technical fix can combat public-speaking fears: Virtual-reality headsets.

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Why it matters — Improving everyday interpersonal skills, like public speaking, can seriously affect how both men and women interact, and achieve success in the world. But interestingly, this study reveals a technique which appears to only work well for men — using VR doppelgängers to effectively train themselves to deliver a speech.

Essentially, men seem to benefit most from learning from a version of themselves, according to the study.

After their first speech, the participants watched either a generic VR avatar or their VR doppelgänger perform the same speech. Participants watched from outside the conference hall so they could focus more on body language than the spoken speech.


Digging into the details — The researchers behind this new study focus on self-efficacy, or how much we believe in our abilities to complete a task well. In essence, it's a form of task-specific self-esteem.

See also: Does virtual reality have the power to change abusers?

One way to improve our public-speaking skills and build self-efficacy, or self-esteem, write the authors, is through watching role models do the things we are afraid of doing. Just like a child learns how to greet friends by watching their parents, research suggests adults, too, can improve their interpersonal skills by watching and mimicking another person accomplishing these tasks successfully.

This skill-building practice can be broken down into four main points:

  • Collecting information about the desired behavior.
  • The demonstration of that behavior by a role model.
  • The practice of that behavior by the trainee.
  • And feedback to the trainee about their practice.

Typically you might just watch a video or take a class, but in this study, the researchers looked at how well virtual avatar role models can boost trainees' self-esteem, and bolster their interpersonal skills.

"Individuals low in self-efficacy might have an extra benefit from seeing themselves–their doppelgänger already perform the desired interpersonal skills behavior," write the authors.

To test it out, they recruited 76 undergraduate students.

What they did — First, the students filled out a questionnaire to help researchers' determine their base levels of social anxiety, trait anxiety, as well as how much public speaking experience they had, and how they'd like to improve upon it.

Then, the researchers took photos of each student to recreate them as VR doppelgängers.

During their first speech, the participants looked out at a sea of virtual onlookers.


The students were split into two separate trial groups: one group that would interact with a doppelgänger avatar based on their own likeness, and the other who would interact with a virtual avatar of the same gender.

On their second visit to the lab, the participants were plugged into a VR conference room and tasked with giving a 3-minute speech to a virtual crowd about university fees. At the same time, the researchers judged each speaker's overall effectiveness based on body language cues.

Then, each student was plugged back in — this time as an observer peeking into the lecture hall from behind a windowed door — to watch either their VR doppelgänger or a VR avatar of the same gender deliver the speech.

Finally, the students were plugged back into the VR conference for a third time. The researchers evaluated the same cues again to see how well their public-speaking performance improved after observing the VR avatars and doppelgängers deliver their speeches.

What they discovered — Originally, the researchers hypothesized that all participants would experience improvements after watching their doppelgängers' speech, but it turns out that this was only true in one subset — males with low self-efficacy.

Using measurements based on body language, men with the lowest levels of self-efficacy, or self-esteem, before the trial showed the most improvement in their speech-giving abilities after watching their doppelgänger-selves deliver the speech. In particular, watching themselves was more effective training than watching another male avatar deliver the speech.

Women in the trial did not experience the same boost in performance as a result of watching either VR role model. The researchers speculate the sex difference may be related to how women judge their own — and their peers' — performance, as opposed to those of well-acclaimed (and typically male) speakers.

Seeing their own avatar deliver an excellent speech had a much greater effect on men in the trial than it did on women.

"Public speaking skills are traditionally associated with male prototypes. Research has shown that individuals’ prototypical representations of leaders, which refer to managerial positions requiring self-presentation, assertiveness, and persuasion, are commonly associated with men. This skills-gender association is detrimental to women, leading for instance to discrimination against women aspiring to high status positions," say the authors in the study.

In other words: The women may have felt uninspired by their doppelgängers' speeches because they didn't believe they were qualified to be giving them in the first place — regardless of how well they did.

What's next — While this study generates some interesting findings, the sample size is too small to definitively establish the effects of VR training on interpersonal skills, the researchers say.

In the future, a larger participant group, made up of a more diverse crowd, will help tease out this relationship. A multi-year longitudinal study is also needed to see how the benefits of such VR training might accumulate, or dissipate, over time. It is also important to note the dichotomous gender representation in this study is not representative of the world at large.

"Understanding the profile of trainees who benefit the most from doppelgänger-based training will allow managers to make more precise recommendations for how to develop interpersonal skills for different collaborators," the authors write.

Abstract: Interpersonal skills require mastering a wide range of competencies such as communication and adaptation to different situations. Effective training includes the use of videos in which role models perform the desired behaviours such that trainees can learn through behavioural mimicry. However, new technologies allow new ways of designing training. In the present study, given that virtual reality is emerging as a valuable training setting, we compare two different demonstration conditions within virtual reality by investigating the extent to which the use of doppelgangers as role models can boost trainees’ interpersonal skills development as compared to a role model that does not resemble the trainees. We also assess trainees’ level of self-efficacy and gender as potential moderators in this relationship. Participants delivered a speech in front of a virtual audience twice. Before delivering their second speech, they watched a role model giving a speech in front of the same audience. The role model was either their doppelganger or an avatar of the same gender depending on the condition they were randomly assigned to. Results showed that the doppelganger based training was the most beneficial for male trainees low in self-efficacy. These findings have important implications for training design, suggesting that doppelganger-based training might be effective only for a specific subset of trainees.
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