Criticism affects job interview stress in virtual reality

Why does one interview feel like an energy boost, while another one feels like a complete disaster? Or more importantly, what happens to you in a job interview and why? As it turns out, what the interviewer is saying has a significant impact on you. Especially, the way questions are formulated and the replies you get on your answers.

In a recently published study in PLoS ONE, we observed how people respond in a job interview. We asked people to imagine a scenario where they had applied for a position at an IT company, and were now invited for an job interview with an HR staff member. The actual interviews we did in virtual reality. Set within a virtual office room, the virtual HR staff member asked a series of questions and listened to the answers a person gave. We wanted to study people's emotional reaction while being engaged in an interview where they receive a mixture of criticism and compliments. Of course, these people knew that this interview would not result in an actual job offer and therefore had nothing to gain or lose. Still, would this social interaction, stripped from any future consequences, affect people?

HR staff member
Figure 1: Virtual job interview with female (left) and male (right) interviewer.

A key element of a job interview is the notion of being judged or evaluated by someone. This can elicit social anxiety. The question that we therefore wanted to answer is whether the amount of criticism or compliments had a direct impact on people behavior and emotion. We manipulated the ratio of positive or negative questions and replies to applicant's answers. Take for example this positive dialogue interaction: HR staff "What do you know about our company?". Participant : "This company has many brilliant products, from internet service to advanced mobile operating systems, that's why I would love to work here if I can get hired. Because this what I'm good at!". HR Staff: "Well...very good! It seems that you know a lot about this company!". Compare this to a more negative example: HR staff: "Are you sure you know something about this company?". Participant: "Hmmm yes, more or less. Your search engine is world famous". HR staff: "Hmm... [doubting tone] You should have at least visited our website before coming here!". In the experiment we changed the ratio from 0% negative and 100% positive toned questions and replies to 100% negative and 0% positive toned questions and replies. Every 4 minutes we changed the ratio in steps of 25%.

Heart Rate
Figure 2: The effect of dialogues stressor on the participants’ heart rate.

When confronted with more criticism, people reported more discomfort and their heart rate increased. When examining their answers, we found that their answers also became shorter. This can be seen as an avoidance strategy of individuals, an attempt to disengage from the social interaction. People also felt less dominant, whereas they regarded the HR staff member as more dominant. And likewise their attitude towards the interview became more negative.

People that reported more social interaction anxiety prior to experiment, were even more affected by the manipulation. Besides the pure scientific curiosity, this also shows the potential application of these findings. People with social anxiety disorder have a strong fear of being judged negatively by others or being embarrassed in social situations. Exposing people to these social situations in virtual reality is being studied as a potential treatment. Manipulating the mixture of compliments and criticism gives therapists the ability to control anxiety eliciting stimuli. Besides psychotherapy, we anticipate psychological stress testing, job interview training or games also to benefit from this control if they need to include conversations that could elicit various degree of stress.