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So much about a good life depends on the social bonds we build. For example, a family member introduces you to surfing, which becomes your new favourite hobby. While surfing, you make a friend at the beach, who recommends you for a job with their company and allows you to start a new career. You have lunch with a colleague during your new career, who puts you on to a great undiscovered band. When you check out this band at their concert, you meet someone special to date. The bridges we build with other people take us places.
But building bridges isn’t easy for everyone. Some people see the reward in building bridges, but they also see a big risk of being judged or humiliated. When people get into a pattern of seeing the risks of social interactions as worse than the rewards, we often call it social anxiety. Social anxiety has a terrible impact on wellbeing and quality of life, which is made worse by being difficult to treat. Social anxiety doesn’t build bridges, it burns them down.
My research tries to develop new ways of treating social anxiety by getting people to make more eye contact. It turns out that eye contact is vital to knowing how social interactions are going, but people with social anxiety habitually avoid it. That is why I’m using an infrared eye-tracker to test whether Oxytocin or attention training improves eye contact during social interactions. If people with social anxiety correct the tendency to avoid eye contact, we’re hopeful they might make it easier for them to learn that the rewards of building bridges are greater than the risks.
This background also makes Bards & Bandits the perfect game for me. Bards and Bandits is all about balancing the risks and rewards of building bridges. Choose to cooperate with your partner and you might amass a vast fortune together… or have it stolen while you’re looking the other way. Choose to compete and you’ll protect your treasure, but you might find yourself fighting over pennies.
So, will you build bridges, or burn them?
Written by Mark Bayliss
Mark is a research scientist at the University of Sydney using infrared eye tracking to look at whether oxytocin can promote eye contact and reduce anxiety in challenging social situations.