MIT News reports that a software package that serves as a “coach” to help the socially awkward overcome their phobias has been developed at the institute. It could revolutionize how people with such difficulties can be treated.
The first to benefit from the new package, certain characters on the hit TV show “The Big Bang Theory.”
Roughly 15 million people in the United States suffer from some kind of phobia that inhibits their ability to interact socially. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, this condition is defined as, “a strong fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed. This fear can be so strong that it gets in the way of going to work or school or doing other everyday things.”
The software package allows people with social phobia to practice social interactions on their own in private, away from other people they are afraid might judge them harshly. The package, called MACH or My Automated Conversation coach uses a computer generated face to simulate face to face conversations. MACH is able to analyze voice patterns and facial expressions and to provide feedback after each exercise. The person using the system can practice as often as they need to until they are comfortable enough to try out their new found skills in the real world.
Social phobia or social awkwardness can prevent a person from acquiring and holding down a job and inhibit him or her from forming interpersonal relationships. Treatments include psychotherapy and medication, which includes anti anxiety and anti depressant drugs. Such medication can be very powerful and is often dangerous to take over an extended period of time.
MIT tested the system by using three different groups of volunteers All three of the groups were subjected to two job interviews, two weeks apart.
During the two weeks one group watched videos of interview advice, a second group used the MACH software to simulate being interviewed but received no feedback other than a video of their session, and a third group used the MACH and received extended feedback. The third group showed a marked improvement in their interpersonal skills during the second job interview.
“Designed to run on an ordinary laptop, the system uses the computer’s webcam to monitor a user’s facial expressions and movements, and its microphone to capture the subject’s speech. The MACH system then analyzes the user’s smiles, head gestures, speech volume and speed, and use of filler words, among other things. The automated interviewer – a life-size, three-dimensional simulated face – can smile and nod in response to the subject’s speech and motions, ask questions and give responses.”
The reason behind the success of the MACH seems to be that it, being non human, can be seen as objective and not judgmental.