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Marianne Schmid Mast
Cyberpsychology, Work and occupational

‘We should get involved much earlier when there's a new discovery’

Ingrid Covington meets Marianne Schmid Mast, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics (HEC) of the University of Lausanne, and one of the keynotes at the forthcoming European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology congress.

15 December 2022

Are you looking forward to the EAWOP Congress? There's been quite a break since our last one, in Turin in 2019.

I'm very much looking forward to this conference, because I'm still in the post-Covid shock in the sense that I haven't completely been back to my usual Congress going activity. It's sort of the restart of going back to big and important conferences. And there's a second aspect I'm really happy about and I always look forward to – many of my students will join me, and those of my colleagues… it's always nice to see them in a different environment than our daily interactions.

I think that's wonderful, an experience for you collectively as well as individually. Could you tell us a bit about your keynote?

I've always been very attracted to how we can create synergies and use technologies that have been developed in other fields, mostly. For 20 years now, I've used immersive virtual reality to simulate social interactions with virtual humans. In the US during my postdoc, virtual reality was being developed to actually encounter social interaction partners, such as in a job interview. Around 2002 there was a workshop at the University of California in Santa Barbara, where we learned programming for creating social interactions in virtual reality, and to use that as a setting for our studies. We were a bunch of 12 people, and perhaps the first social psychologists exposed to this new technology. I got really fascinated by it, and I started to incorporate it in my own research.

One of my first studies put participants in the role of a patient consulting for recurrent headaches with a virtual doctor, who was either a woman or a man and who either behaved in a dominant or friendly way. We showed that regardless of gender, patients self-disclosed more to friendly doctors, for instance. That's important for diagnoses and for finding the appropriate treatment. With virtual doctors, we were able to standardise the interactions and manipulate only the variables we were interested in by holding all else constant. At the same time we're making the interaction 'realistic' by immersing the participants completely in the virtual doctor's office.

So I'll be talking about advantages and examples like this, and also how we can use artificial intelligence for the study of social interactions at work.

So the opportunities that are presented by this technology that can't be achieved using other tools or platforms. My observation – and this could be inaccurate – is that many researchers in the field tend to be focused on the drawbacks of the technology. How balanced do you feel we are as a field in looking at the advantages and the disadvantages?

When there's a new technology, first, everybody gets very excited about it, and then you start to realise, 'oh, maybe we need to be careful, there are other questions coming up'. Then people may become overly critical. The truth is, that is the case with many other things; you can use them responsibly, then they provides you with lots of insights that you couldn't have otherwise. But the technology can also be used for less honourable purposes. You can use 'deep fake' to create videos of a person doing something immoral, but you can use the same technology to show a person positive behaviour they have never really shown, and test whether they can learn from seeing themselves… for instance, giving a perfect speech although they suffer from stage fright.

I am interested in exploring how new technologies can help us in a positive way. With all the ethics review committees and the highest standards in our fields, we are well equipped to be conscious about the possible pitfalls. And I don't think we can make it go away. If you don't like artificial intelligence, I agree there a lot of drawbacks, but the technology is not going to disappear. So technology is here, it's been developed, how can we use it for something that makes sense?

What can we do about building public confidence to align with that philosophy – that this is happening with or without our involvement?

It's part of a larger approach, to be transparent about the research we're doing.

For me, the dialogue between practitioners and researchers really needs to be open. On both sides. As researchers, we need to learn how to talk about our research, the methods and the results. Practitioners may have concrete questions: 'should I do it this way or that way?' And the research results are oftentimes not very clear cut… we tend to say 'it depends…". So we need openness from practitioners and the larger public to accept that there are not always easy solutions. This is why we need dialog.

What about policy? Do you think we could play a more proactive role around influencing policy development?

That's a very interesting question. I think some countries are more confident to look towards research to inform their policies whereas in others, research has not such a high standing.  It really depends on the value that society puts on the research, and I've experienced that as very different from one country to the other.

Here is how I see the link and the potential. If we want to take good decisions as citizens or as politicians, we need to base them on facts. We need to know what's what. And scientists are in the business of gauging facts, of producing facts. In that sense, we have an important role to play in politics: We deliver the facts that inform – among other considerations – political decisions. In times of fake news, science can play the role of fact-based news.

You are in organisational behavior. How many other fields are represented in your area of interest? Who do you share the space with?

I am a social psychologist, or a work and organizational psychologist working in a business, management, and economics School. I am currently the Dean of this School (HEC Lausanne). So much of my work touches behavioural economics. I share the very rigorous experimental approach with this field. Together with a behavioural economist colleague, we just published a paper in which we showed that when you experimentally control for demand effects (participants responding simply according to what they think is expected from them), the effect of power on risk taking is actually non-existent.

Then there are computer scientists. Because I use AI methods in my research, I have been collaborating with them for decades. It all started with developing algorithms that are able to automatically extract nonverbal behavior people exhibit during social interactions. Now such algorithms are commonplace. We used such extractions to provide feedback to applicants in a job interview situation in order to train them to make a good first impression.

What advice would you give to somebody interested in trying to use our profession in ways that are more future focused? How might we be innovative and creative?

As a researcher, I would advise to go with your passion. What's the question you want to answer? That helps when you find out something unexpected, or it takes much more time than you thought to get to an answer. Another piece of advice is to go and look at different domains… step outside your own field once in a while. That can be anything – doesn't have to be computer science – it depends on the question. Sometimes you discover in a philosophy book, or a sociology book, or what have you, something that actually speaks to you. Get inspired by the world that surrounds you. This is how I became a researcher. In one class I had during my studies, the task was simply to go and observe fish in a fish tank for about 8 hours a week and come up with a research question or hypothesis and then go and test it. If you really look around and observe, you come up with tons of interesting questions. One example of my research is that people always told me that women do not form hierarchies among themselves as men do. However, my own experience was very different. In an all-woman group, everybody exactly knew the hierarchy. So I set out to test this empirically by observing small all-women and small all-male groups and assessing their hierarchical structures. My research showed that all-women groups formed hierarchies much in the same way as all-male groups, but it took them longer.

Now, Covid is still here, we have the Ukraine conflict, the energy crisis, a world in turmoil. As a profession, where can we best contribute?

We really need to be good at what we're doing. I don't think we should sacrifice depth just to be much broader.  We need to really understand what we're doing and be the point of reference for questions that concern us. Take HR, for instance: what does the home office do to people? How are hierarchies affected by remote work? People will come to the experts to look for specific answers, and we need to be able to deliver that.

At the same time, we also need breadth and researchers who do interdisciplinary research and who look at the same questions from a different angle. We need to solve the problems together. One researcher does not necessarily have to encompass both, being deep in the discipline and being broad interdisciplinary. As a field, we need both types of researchers.

What else would you like to see more of from our profession?

That's biased by my own interests: I think we should get involved much earlier when there's a new discovery or hype. Some people do, obviously. But as a field, we are a little conservative. How many people in our field are using Metaverse to do research studies, to give one example? Let's try to explore these new things that pop up, be a little bit more courageous. We have tendency to say, 'oh, let's just see what it is, try to understand it first.' We too can have our word to say, but for that we need to engage with all these new trends.

I know you're passionate about working with your students, having conversations with them and inspiring them. Do you think they're entering the profession with this courage that you think we need?

For the most part, yes. They're very curious, and maybe on average they are more about, 'let's really make a difference, make a change'… not just understand how it works, but go one step further. What does that mean for policy? How can we save the planet? Let's do the research that gives us an answer to that.

What role do you think there is for organisations in that? What needs to change infrastructure wise for that to be achievable?

It's pretty natural that a conference will help that, just through the mingling and exchange of ideas. You see so many different people from different countries presenting, asking the same question, being concerned about the same thing. In and of itself, that's very stimulating. I see what happens to my students: it opens their perspective. Research is something that is not bound to country lines, and to experience that at the conference… that's really the added value. Despite maybe cultural differences we have some common reference points, it transcends these different nationalities and backgrounds. That's such an important experience to me at an international conference.

I'm an English speaker, living in the French speaking part of Belgium, based at NATO. Where English is not somebody's first language, the way they express themselves, I find it really stimulating. It helps me to see something differently, in a more pure way. Just the very idea that we might have a completely different construct.

A few years ago we had a conference with the British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology, and we invited 30 students from Ghana to attend our first ever online conference. Herminia Ibarra was one of our keynote speakers, talking about career transitions. It was so interesting to see the reaction of Ghanaian students saying, 'that's a luxury that we are not afforded in our country'. And now we're travelling to Poland, bordering this huge conflict, and we're going to be having psychologists from Ukraine talking about their experiences. All these experiences make you see the world differently, and motivate you to ask questions differently.

Your research is cutting edge, it's all about the future, which fits the Congress theme well. With this world in turmoil, what are the priorities?

We need to be well-trained, we need to know the research that is out there, we need to contribute with good methods to create new knowledge. And we need to open our eyes to the different situations of different researchers in different countries. Could more be done in terms of exchanges? We have an exchange system that works quite well for students. For researchers, exchanges are possible but maybe too often focused on the US, the UK, or Australia. While these are excellent places for research, there are brilliant people everywhere in the world. Especially in Europe, we have such a richness in countries and cultures; there might be something to cherish there. European conferences can be a platform to exploit this potential.

- Find out more about the 2023 Congress, and read our other interviews.