Job interviews are stressful for anyone, but for people who are prone to anxiety, or who have been diagnosed with PTSD or mental illness, they can be nightmares. That's why a software company has built a training program specifically designed to get over this hurdle.
According to research just published in the journal Psychiatric Service, interviewing with a virtual director of human resources has proven to be extremely effective at helping users control their anxiety in a job interview.
Both PTSD and unemployment are problems for veterans, and either can exacerbate the other. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for male veterans of the most recent war in Iraq remained higher than the rate for male non-veterans in 2014. A study cited by The Economist stated that an estimated 12 percent of American veterans from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from PTSD.
The Maryland-based software company SIMmersion originally created an algorithm for conducting virtual reality conversations in order to help teach FBI agents how to interview suspects. But Morris Bell, a Yale psychiatry professor and collaborator on the project, saw the program had potential elsewhere too—allowing people to practice for job interviews.
You can play around with the company's commercial service here, if you're curious, but I called up the researchers to find out how their own setup worked.
"Essentially the way it works," Matthew Smith, the lead author of the study conducted at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, told me over the phone, "they hire an actor who records nearly 2,000 lines of dialogue. Then they splice the video they collected into their algorithm in their computer program and connected it to their voice recognition software."
"So when you engage the training, Molly Porter is the virtual human resources agent you interview with," he continued. "Molly will introduce herself and ask you a question. After she asks you a question, you have 10 to 15 responses that you can speak out loud and then she'll respond to your comment and ask you another question or ask you to provide more detail on your original response."
Seventy participants, some of whom were veterans diagnosed with PTSD and some were civilians diagnosed with other mental illnesses, took a 10-hour training course on SIMmersion's software. Each virtual interview took about 20 to 30 minutes to complete. Afterwards, participants could review transcripts of their virtual interview, which provide constructive feedback on how to better next time. Smith told me that participants usually completed about 15 trials during the intervention.
Smith told me the researchers weren't expecting to see a response as strong as the one they observed.
"About half of trainees received a job offer, and about a quarter of the controls received a job offer," Smith said.
Being twice as likely to get a job offer would be remarkable enough, but, as Smith explained, when the data is controlled for two factors—cognition or memory and time since last full-time employment—trainees were actually nine-times more likely to get a job offer than the control group. The results were the same for job-seeking adults who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia: trainees were nine-times more likely to get job offers.
As Motherboard previously found, there are already virtual-reality treatments available for veterans, but the software studied by Northwestern also proved helpful for individuals diagnosed with severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.
I had thought that a big value of virtual reality might be that it's cheaper than working face-to-face with a counselor or teacher, but Smith made some compelling points about the advantages of VR. He said that neuroscience has learned that sustainable behavioral learning takes repetitive practice. Virtual reality training gave individuals 10 to 20 interviews to work to establish their skills. Software has other advantages as well.
"For example, a service provider may not be able to change their personality and take on the characteristics of several different types of interviewers, whereas the virtual reality training has that characteristic," he said. "One of the other advantages, I think, is that when you're practicing a role play with a service provider you already know, there's a level of comfort there. Whereas a job interview creates a more anxious environment where you're going to be asked questions you may or may not be prepared for, and to some degree it's a nerve-racking experience for anybody, let alone individuals who may already be prone to anxiety."
Smith told me that he's eager to find out if the research team's results translate outside of the lab. At least when people come in and practice at Northwestern, 10 hours with Molly Porter apparently helps.