How Social Placebos Boost Performance in VR

Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant doing a trust exercise – Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant doing a trust exercise – Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Are you interested in boosting player performance? Giving people the right social environment will help them achieve more.

NBA players who touch each other a lot during games (fist bump, high-five, head grab) cooperate more and outperform their prickly counterparts on other teams. Consider the effect of mimicking those high-fives, hugs, and team huddles in your VR experience – people will feel a high sense of trust and liking for others.

I’m interested in how small things influence actions and decisions. Why would a small social gesture like a high-five help a professional athlete perform better? The stakes are extremely high for them so you might imagine they are already maxed out on motivation to win. 

Like most things in life, there’s an evolutionary explanation. People who belonged to a strong tribe knew that they could take more risks. In the event of a negative outcome, there were people who could care for you. These small things like fist bumps signal strong social ties.

“I’m not the guy who’s afraid of failure. I like to take risks, take the big shot and all that.” 
    – Steph Curry

Consider how social placebos would change a VR game like Surgeon Simulator: Meet the Medic by Bossa Labs. You are a surgeon in the game and have to perform tasks like heart transplants to save the patient. This is a gaming experience where having people around could boost a player’s performance. Having another person watching you would make you move faster.*

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What are the limitations of the social placebo?

 Having an audience when doing a complicated task for the first time could sabotage performance. But, if it’s a straightforward action that doesn’t require any particular skill, having supporters would likely help. And it can be a complex activity, as long as the user has already rehearsed. 

 Also, the encouragement should probably come from the person’s in-group.

Kobe Bryant congratulating Steph Curry on a trifecta

Kobe Bryant congratulating Steph Curry on a trifecta

Does the social placebo work when you are surrounded by AI avatars instead of human avatars? 

 Most likely. It might not last as long or be as effective compared to being around humans you know well and like, but a high five from an AI is likely better than no high five at all.

 How many viewers are optimal?

 It really depends on your goal. One person might be enough. Building a stadium of AI spectators might be overkill, but athletes do get a buzz from those national anthems, pre-game rituals, and cheering fans. 

Takeaway for VR designers:

  • Usage will increase if you build in social placebos. People will be perform at a higher level and have more fun.

*Human runners go faster when they are under observation than when they are solo.  Same effect in cockroaches.  Those pests fun faster when other cockroaches are watching them.