Culture, Society & Family Mind & Brain Technology Videos

Practicing assertiveness skills on virtual-reality “dates” may help women prevent sexual victimization

avatar-01-web.jpgIt’s a stormy night when a young man offers a young college woman a ride home. First he makes friendly small-talk. But then he becomes sexually aggressive and angry.

Can she get out of this situation without getting hurt?

While this could be a real experience for many women, in this case it’s virtual reality. The purpose is role-playing in a psychology laboratory at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Although realistic and scary, the role-playing is nevertheless a safe way to teach assertiveness skills to young women so they can resist sexual victimization, according to new research.

Read: “Can Virtual Reality Teach College Women Sexual Coercion and Rape-Resistance Skills
Read: “Extreme reality: Women avoid sexual assault in virtual zone

A pilot project in which women practiced assertiveness skills reduced sexual victimization considerably, say researchers Ernest Jouriles, Renee McDonald and Lorelei Simpson, psychologists in SMU’s Department of Psychology.

The researchers tracked participants in the assertiveness program over three months and found that women in a control group were sexually victimized at twice the rate of those who had practiced the skills.

New research in which women practice their newly learned skills on a virtual-reality “date” holds promise for making the program even stronger.

Jouriles, McDonald and Simpson will present the research in November at the annual conference of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Between 25 percent and 50 percent of American women will experience sexual coercion or sexual assault during their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Those in their teens and early 20s are at particularly high risk, research shows.

The toll on victims ranges from depression and anxiety to drug abuse, psychiatric symptoms and chronic medical conditions.

“Sexual assault prevention programs for young women are widely available,” says Jouriles, professor and chairman of the SMU Department of Psychology. “However, only a few have been scientifically evaluated. Although some of these programs have been shown to change young women’s knowledge and attitudes about sexual assault, they have not generally been shown to prevent actual assaults.”

SMU psychologists Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald.

Jouriles and McDonald designed the virtual reality program in collaboration with students and faculty at The Guildhall, SMU’s graduate-level video-game design program. They worked with Simpson to develop the assertiveness training program and are currently using the virtual-reality technology to enhance women’s practice experiences when they learn assertiveness skills.

To participate, a young woman wears a head-mounted display and earphones that allow her to navigate a make-believe sexually risky environment. It immerses her in a setting that feels genuinely threatening. She faces off against an avatar controlled by a live male actor, who delivers the dialogue and controls the speech and actions of the virtual date.

The department’s 10-foot-by-12-foot laboratory room is furnished with two adjoining bucket seats and a couch to replicate either the front seat of a car or a party setting.

Similar to a multi-player, interactive video game, the sophisticated head-mounted display streams computer-generated, 3D images. The perspective is first-person, which tracks and changes with the wearer’s head position. Earphones surround the wearer with the sounds of pounding rain and music from the car radio.

SMU psychologist Lorelei Simpson.

The woman experiences the make-believe environment from a seat next to the avatar. In a 10- to 12-minute role-play, the actor challenges the young woman’s assertiveness by gradually escalating the conversation from small-talk and flirtation to verbal sexual coercion and anger. The avatar’s lips move in sync with the actor’s speech, and his facial expressions and movements, such as changing the radio station and drinking beer, make the virtual interaction more natural.

Research by Jouriles and McDonald published in 2009 found that young women who practiced navigating the virtual reality environment had a stronger negative reaction to the sexual threat than did participants in conventional role-playing without virtual reality technology.

Although the study didn’t evaluate the reason for that difference, Jouriles and McDonald hypothesized that the virtual environment makes it easier for participants to become immersed in role-play. It’s possible that women in a conventional role-playing environment feel more self-conscious or that the situation is more artificial than women interacting with an avatar, which results in more guarded responses, they said.

McDonald is an associate professor. Simpson is an assistant professor.

Related links:
SMU Profile: Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald
Ernest Jouriles
Renee McDonald
Lorelei Simpson
SMU Department of Psychology
SMU Guildhall
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Culture, Society & Family Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Student researchers

Children’s sense of threat from parental fighting determines trauma symptoms

artist-dolls-fighting.jpgIf children feel threatened by even very low levels of violence between their parents, they may be at increased risk for developing trauma symptoms, new research suggests.

A study by psychologists at SMU found that children who witness violence between their mother and her intimate partner report fewer trauma symptoms if they don’t perceive the violence as threatening.

The research highlights the importance of assessing how threatened a child feels when his or her parents are violent toward one another, and how that sense of threat may be linked to symptoms of trauma.

Children’s perception of threat determines any trauma
“Our results indicated a relation between children’s perception of threat and their trauma symptoms in a community sample reporting relatively low levels of violence,” said Deborah Corbitt-Shindler, a doctoral candidate in the psychology department at SMU. “The results of the study suggest that even very low levels of violence, if interpreted as threatening by children, can influence the development of trauma symptoms in children.”

The researchers presented their findings February 24 at the “National Summit on Interpersonal Violence and Abuse Across the Lifespan: Forging a Shared Agenda” in Dallas. The scientific conference was sponsored by the National Partnership to End Interpersonal Violence Across the Lifespan.

iStock-paperdoll-hearts.jpgFamily violence experts estimate that more than half of children exposed to intimate partner violence experience trauma symptoms, such as bad dreams, nightmares and trying to forget about the fights.

SMU study surveyed Dallas area families
The SMU study of 532 children and their mothers looked at the link between intimate partner violence and trauma symptoms in children. The families were recruited from communities in the urban Dallas area. The National Institute of Mental Health funded the research.

In the study, mothers were asked to describe any violent arguments they’d had with their intimate partners, and they were asked about trauma symptoms they may have experienced because of the violence.

Similarly, the children in the study, age 7 to 10 years old, were asked to appraise how threatened they felt by the violence they witnessed, and about trauma symptoms they may have experienced because of the violence. The researchers defined “threat” as the extent to which children are concerned that: a family member might be harmed, the stability of the family is threatened, or a parent won’t be able to care for them.

Trauma: Nightmares, bad dreams, trying to forget
To assess trauma, children were asked questions such as if they’ve had bad dreams or nightmares about their mom’s and dad’s arguments or fights; if thoughts of the arguments or fights ever just pop into their mind; if they ever try to forget all about the arguments and fights; and if they ever wish they could turn off feelings that remind them of the arguments and fights.

The SMU researchers found that even when mothers reported an episode of intimate partner violence, their children reported fewer trauma symptoms when they didn’t view the episode as threatening. Although a mother’s emotions sometimes affect their children’s emotions, in this study the mothers’ trauma symptoms were unrelated to the children’s traumatic responses to the violence.

Corbitt-Shindler conducted the study in conjunction with her faculty advisers — Renee McDonald, associate professor, and Ernest Jouriles, professor and chair of the SMU Psychology Department. Additional co-authors of the study were SMU clinical psychology doctoral candidates Erica Rosentraub and Laura Minze; and Rachel Walker, SMU psychology department research assistant. — Margaret Allen

Related links:
SMU Family Research Center
SMU Psychology Department
Deborah Corbitt-Shindler
Renee McDonald
Ernest Jouriles

Culture, Society & Family Learning & Education Mind & Brain Technology

Extreme reality: Women avoid sexual assault in virtual zone

avatar-01-web.jpgSMU’s Department of Psychology and The Guildhall at SMU have joined forces against dating violence.

Psychology Professors Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald, with Guildhall Lecturer Jeff Perryman and Deputy Director Tony Cuevas, are collaborating on a role-playing program that combines virtual reality with behavioral insight to help teach and test sexual assault avoidance techniques.


The program’s environment of a rain-lashed car parked in an isolated area immerses women into not just a location, but also a “conversation” with a potential attacker.

It is the first step in what developers hope will be a program to help women practice strategies for averting sexual assault in a controlled situation that is safe, yet feels realistic.

“This is a potential breakthrough opportunity for gaming technology to help solve an important social problem,” Jouriles says.

During one session, the experience starts in a small, nondescript office where two automobile seats are bolted to a raised platform: An actor sits in the driver’s seat, and a woman sits in the passenger seat to his right. When she puts on video goggles and a headset, she suddenly finds herself in a parked car during a howling rainstorm. Rivulets of water stream down the windshield, flashes of lightning illuminate the interior of the car, and thunder beats a steady cadence.

She doesn’t see the actor beside her, she sees a three-dimensional video game character at the wheel of the car. She is drawn into small talk, but the driver turns increasingly aggressive, eventually demanding sexual intimacy. It is nothing short of frightening and, oddly enough, very real.

Role-playing is a well-established method for teaching people to deal with complex social situations, says Jouriles, professor and chair of psychology in Dedman College. But he hit a wall in his research when he tried the method to teach relationship violence avoidance techniques to a high school health class in the late 1990s.

“The role-playing produced giggles,” Jouriles says. “And from my perspective, it didn’t capture the imaginaton of the students.”

SMU psychologists Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald.

Jouriles and McDonald, associate professor of psychology in Dedman College, joined the SMU faculty in August 2003, when a handful of psychologists around the country were beginning to experiment with virtual programs to treat anxiety disorders, such as allowing people who were afraid of flying to “practice” without boarding an airplane.

They wondered whether SMU’s newly opened Guildhall could help teach and test sexual assault avoidance techniques by immersing a woman into not just a virtual location, but also a “conversation” with a potential attacker.

“We created an enclosed environment,” says Perryman, Guildhall lecturer, who worked on the program with Guildhall’s Cuevas.

“We wanted our participant to feel powerless. The rain was added to isolate her. The car is particularly creepy. We worked hard at that,” says Perryman.

The simulation requires participants to wear a head-mounted video display with tracking technology that senses head movements and an audio headset, which transmits the voice of the avatar “driver” and other sounds from the virtual environment. The avatar’s lips move in sync with the voice of the actor, who controls the character’s facial expressions and movements through a video keyboard. The virtual driver can be made to nod, shrug, even pound the steering wheel in anger when he is rebuffed.

Jouriles, McDonald and their team studied the responses of 62 undergraduate women who were randomly assigned to traditional or virtual reality role-play and outfitted with heart monitors. All were asked to complete questionnaires afterward on their moods and experience.

The women who donned the headgear and went through the virtual scenario rated the experience’s realism higher than those in the traditional role play group. Behavioral observations also suggested that women experiencing the virtual car scene appeared more angry and afraid.

Jouriles calls those results “very promising.” The next step, he says, is to develop a virtual scenario that can test techniques to avert sexual assault. He hopes to see some variation on the virtual program developed for use in high schools and colleges. — Kim Cobb

Related links:
SMU Profile: Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald
Ernest Jouriles
Renee McDonald
Jeff Perryman
Tony Cuevas
SMU Guildhall
SMU Department of Psychology
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Culture, Society & Family Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Student researchers

Family Research Center helps children of family violence

Each year more than 1 million children in the United States are brought to shelters to escape family violence. Each of their families reports, on average, more than 60 acts of aggression at home during the past year, ranging from pushes and shoves to hits and kicks. More than half of the families report an incident involving a knife or gun.

“Research that studies children who witness violence in the home is fundamental to helping them,” says Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place in Dallas. The Family Research Center, a new program of SMU’s Psychology Department in Dedman College, works with shelters such as The Family Place to address the mental health problems of children facing domestic violence.


Family violence affects children’s physical health as well, says Candyce Tart, a second-year Ph.D. student in SMU’s clinical psychology program. Tart’s years of experience in pediatric nursing, mostly in inner-city school environments, sparked an interest in the psychology of her patients’ families.

“Many of these children’s illnesses were made worse by stress at home,” she says. “All sorts of psychological factors in their lives seemed to impact their lives more than physical health.”

Tart studies conduct-disordered children from dysfunctional or abusive families through the Family Research Center as part of her dissertation on biological and physiological underpinnings of behavioral problems.


“I’d like to know why some children come out of these violent households with more behavior or emotional problems, and others more resilient,” she says.

SMU’s faculty, especially its revitalized clinical psychology program under Psychology Department Chair Ernest Jouriles, had a lot to do with Tart’s decision to attend the University, she says.

“Ernest Jouriles is developing a fantastic research program with the facilities and support for doing research,” says Tart. “We have so much equipment available, as well as access into shelters and other community and clinical locations. And it’s a very collaborative environment. Not all schools have that.”

Related links:
Family Research Center
Candyce Tart
Ernest Jouriles
Department of Psychology
The Family Place
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences