How does anxiety interact with rapport?

This question will be the subject of my next week of research. The past week involved reading some more articles, but with a different purpose than when this project started. Briefly stated, my mentor and I have decided to choose one single avenue of research from the past week: the interaction of anxiety/vulnerability and rapport. We discussed how to structure this to write a literature review.

There are four challenges to extracting information from the literature on anxiety and rapport:

  • There is a tendency for me to read too much from a single author; in my case, I tend to read too many articles from Jonathan Gratch, from the University of Southern California’s Creative Technology Institute, who focuses on the interaction of virtual agents with real humans. To solve this, I am trying to read more from authors like Eric Noftle and Phillips Shaver, who have done work in the psychology of personality.
  • Some papers (e.g. “Agreeable People Like Agreeable Virtual Humans” by Jonathan Gratch) conflate the definition of anxiety and vulnerability but these two have different meanings. For example, in a team of children who are tasked with developing a law of physics for seesaws after observing one in real life, the child who has been taught more about physics may be more anxious to speak (so as to not seem overbearing) but also feel more confident in what he is saying. Whereas, the child who is less confident is less anxious to speak. Such behavior was observed in “Processes and Consequences of Peer Collaboration: A Vygotskian Analysis” (Tudge, 1992).
  • Anxiety is often referred to by Gratch as neuroticism, as defined in the Big Five Personality Traits. These traits however, are innate characteristics, and my mentor and I agreed that we would like to refrain from assuming that an innate characteristic will remain stable throughout a given context or period of time. For example, if Susy is anxious and there’s a snake in the room, she might have trouble building rapport, but my mentor and I would argue that the context (snake) is hindering Susy’s naturally friendly disposition. Also, Susy may have had a bad day. The point is that we would like to create an agent that is adaptive to different emotional states a tutee is in, rather than classify people as always anxious or always extroverted.
  • Many papers focus on observable behavior, e.g. a subject is smiling more frequently when a virtual agent smiles more frequently. While this is interesting, I am realizing it is more productive for me to take a more abstract view of the behavior and by increasing the level of abstraction, find implications in the psychology of human–virtual agent interaction.

The last challenge listed above brings me to my next point in this blogpost, which is this week’s meeting with my mentor. He revealed to me a hierarchy in research topics, reproduced here from the highest (1) to lowest level (3).

  1. Underlying psychological/social state
  2. Latent (not directly observable) social functions
  3. Observable behaviors

This is a useful way to organize my research, which I have briefly done below.

  1. This is rapport, e.g. whether it is being destroyed or built up. Also, Soo Youn Oh (2016) describes surveys he uses to measure positive affect and psychological presence, both of which are psychosocial states.
  2. The best examples of this are Gratch (2008) and Zhao (2014). Both articles break down rapport into three common components: mutual attentiveness, coordination, and positivity. Coordination occurs when a dyad is able to feel in-sync, and understand each other’s expectations from the interaction. Positivity, defined slightly differently in both articles, is roughly the act of partners being encouraging towards each other and warm. All these social functions are impossible to directly measure, because no one really knows whether two people really feel in sync, for example, so we use observable behaviors as landmarks.
  3. Observable behaviors are easy to quantify, such as Youn Oh (2016), who measured the difference between a slight smile and a very pronounced smile. Another example is measuring the number of utterances of each partner in a dyad to find who is dominating the interaction.

The hierarchy helps me recognize what to focus on when reading articles, namely the wider implications of their findings rather than specific effects like increased number of smiles. This also helps me find topics that will carry the greatest impact in my upcoming literature review article. When I write it, I will find questions about broad implications that will be more interesting and beneficial for the field than simply comparing observable behavior results from other experiments. Without further ado, here is a summary of my research:

  • The effect of personality on rapport first came into my mind when reading Noftle and Shaver (2005). They describe in a review article format how adults with a more reclusive personality tend to be afraid of attachment, a condition called attachment anxiety. Then, a connection between virtual agents and human anxiety appeared in Johnson (2004), which describes the Persona Effect. The Effect occurs when humans treat socially engaging virtual agents as social actors, meaning we feel the need to be polite or reciprocate kindness to virtual agents. Importantly, we interact with virtual agents in a way similar towards other humans, so perhaps anxiety with humans carries on to virtual agent interactions. Then it gets complicated. We can’t label a subject as anxious and then expect them to be anxious every moment they interact with our agent.; human behavior fluctuates based on context and time. So what we’re really looking for, instead of linking innate anxiety with dyad coordination or mutual attentiveness, is how anxiety is produced by a specific event in the interaction and how to manage it at that specific time. Gratch (2008) states that he expected the more anxious subjects to benefit more from the interaction with his virtual agent, but he found no correlation. Thus, he suggests modifying his definitions of positivity, and I would suggest separating the definitions of anxiety and vulnerability. This brings me to my next article, Gratch (2012) who demonstrated that people who were feeling socially anxious, as self-reported, at the beginning of a session with a virtual counselor also had higher self-reported positive affect and feelings of rapport (than did people who were no as anxious to being with). This supports the idea that there is some kind of highly significant interaction between state-based anxiety and rapport, but Gratch (2012) and Gratch (2008) contradict each other, in that Gratch (2008) did not find such a correlation. Therefore, my idea is that Gratch needs a more nuanced definition of anxiety, breaking it down into true anxiety and separating that from vulnerability.

Including the meeting with my mentor, I have spent 14 hours researching two different path for research, and upon meeting with my mentor I decided the better path was the anxiety/rapport research.

Incidentally, another avenue of research that will be beneficial for someone else in the Articulab to pursue would be subconscious mimicry. Research shows that humans mimic observable behaviors when building rapport, but are not entirely aware of it. One article demonstrated how humans felt like they were bonding closer to a virtual agent that smiled slightly wider than another. The humans did not notice the difference in smiles, but the self-reported measures of positive affect and presence demonstrated that higher rapport correlated with wider smiles from the virtual agent. Thus, humans were subconsciously processing behavioral observations and using that to inform their internal opinion of the rapport level. Furthermore, similar research showed a similar effect with head nods by a virtual agent that were designed to occur a little while after the human (telling a story) nodded their own head. Once again, humans did not report anything about head nods, but did report higher feelings of rapport. It would be interesting to find out more about subconscious social processing.

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