Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Stimulating eye-contact in a virtual environment

Can a virtual character’s friendly non-verbal responses stimulate eye-contact in individuals with varying levels of social anxiety?

Esther van den Bos
Leiden University Fund / Stichting S.K.A.I.

Avoidance of eye-contact

People with social anxiety disorder tend to avoid eye-contact, because they fear to see signs of rejection in the eyes of another person. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it causes them to miss positive interpersonal signals, so that they keep thinking that they are being rejected even when they are not. Second, avoidance of eye-contact may actually trigger negative reactions, which may strengthen or maintain their anxiety.


The ultimate goal of this project is to address this problem by developing an eye-contact training module in a virtual environment that may complement regular treatment of social anxiety disorder. The first step towards this goal is to explore whether people in general make more eye-contact with an interaction partner who responds with friendly non-verbal behaviour than with a non-responsive interaction partner (who shows friendly non-verbal behaviour at fixed intervals). The interaction partners are virtual characters, because their non-verbal behaviour can be fully controlled. We also investigate whether the effects of friendly non-verbal responses are similar for high and low socially anxious people.

The pilot project, funded by a donation to the Leiden University Fund, was designed by Esther van den Bos (principal investigator). Evania Fasya created the avatars and programmed them to show real-time responses to eye-contact assessed with eye-tracking. Bachelor and master students assist with data collection.

If pilot results indicate that eye-contact is facilitated by friendly non-verbal responses, a training module will be developed to stimulate eye-contact in high socially anxious adults and adolescents. The possibility to change the appearance of the virtual characters allows for diverse practice and may contribute to generalization of the practised behaviour. 

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