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Research Center for Virtual Environments & Behavior

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Dr. Crystal Hoyt

To study social interactions, it stands to reason that scientists would observe people interacting with other people. But an innovative project funded by a KDI grant, called "Virtual Environments and Behavior," created virtual physical and social environments. In these virtual environments, people interacted with illusions—computer-generated representations of people, called avatars. The projectís PI was Dr. Jack Loomis, and the co-PI was Dr. James Blascovich, both professors of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

One graduate student who worked on the project was Crystal Hoyt. The initial focus of her graduate work was psychophysiological research (the study of the effects of physiological processes on mental life). Then Dr. Blascovich, who was her advisor, developed an interest in virtual reality technology that Dr. Loomis was using.

"Jim [Blascovich] is a social psychologist, as I am," says Dr. Hoyt. "Jack Loomis is a cognitive psychologist, and he was using the virtual reality technology that was much more popular with cognitive perceptual sciences. And Jim saw it and he got so excited. He said, ĎCrystal, come look at this. It would be great to use for some of our social psychology studies.í I looked at it and I thought, Wow, thatís great, and I got excited, too."

One of Crystal Hoytís roles in this KDI project was to do initial research on the feasibility and reliability of virtual technology as a research tool. In a pioneering study, she and other members of the team compared similar social interactions using virtual reality technology with face-to-face social interactions. "Our approach there was to replicate classic social influence effects," says Dr. Hoyt. "The question we asked ourselves was whether the classic social effects that you see face to face could be seen in the virtual environment."

The team found that the answer was yes—that people act relatively unrestrictedly and in real time within such virtual environments. This result has wide-reaching implications for basic and applied research in the behavioral, educational, and social sciences. This technology can help us understand social influence, social interaction, and other areas of research in social psychology. It allows researchers to test hypotheses while maintaining control over a variety of factors in the social situation, from the physical appearance of the virtual world to the behavior of virtual others in that world.

After Crystal Hoyt got her Ph.D., she went to the University of Richmond, where she is an assistant professor of leadership studies. Her curricular interests include social behavior, leadership and group dynamics, and research methodology in the social sciences.

In her research, she examines how stereotypes and discrimination affect female and minority leaders. When female and minority leaders receive negative leadership performance feedback, they may not be able to judge whether the criticism was based on their leadership ability or on their gender or minority status. Dr. Hoyt explores ways that nontraditional leaders can be shielded from the damaging effects of negative stereotypes and discrimination—by focusing on leadership efficacy, identification with the leadership role, self-esteem, and group performance. Through her research, Dr. Hoyt aims to develop a model of leadership effectiveness with an emphasis on understanding female and minority leadership.

Dr. Hoyt says, "Working on the KDI project definitely helped my career. I got a lot of great experience and a lot of really good research from my time in the lab. I went on to do a number of studies using the virtual reality technology. It also influenced the way I think about approaching problems."

She explains, "Iím just starting a virtual reality system here at the University of Richmond. Iím using virtual reality in my research, bringing that technology with me from UCSB. So it had a very big impact on me, on the way I do research, my support of the technology and what it can do."

She adds, "I take a unique look at the field of social psychology by studying leadership. In addition, Iím a social psychologist very much informed by my mentorship and my research at UCSB, in particular the use of virtual reality technology. And the only reason Iím so involved in that technology is because of my experience at UCSB and my research on the KDI project."

To learn more about virtual environments and behavior, visit the Web site of the Research Center for Virtual Environments & Behavior at UCSB: http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/recveb

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