The right avatar may remind us that we’re all human. And in turn, reinforce us to respond more empathetically toward others online.
So says new research from Laramie Taylor (2010) who looked at people’s responses in the Yahoo Answers Q&A service. People sign on to Yahoo Answers to ask their own questions, or answer other people’s questions about any and every topic imaginable.
Two studies were conducted to examine whether avatars elicit more emotional involvement — like empathy — from people who answer the questions. The researcher also hypothesized that questions that have avatars will receive more answers than those that don’t.
The first study looked at 881 answers in response to 132 questions on Yahoo Answers. The second study examined the altruistic nature of people who answered questions and their avatar usage, and looked at 125 responses. Responses were coded by independent raters.
The researcher found that avatars increased the sense of emotional involvement in this kind of community. Questions that used an avatar received more empathetic answers. And people who had more altruistic motivations had a stronger preference for answering questions posted by someone with an avatar.
Taylor concluded that if you want to receive more empathetic responses in an online community, you may benefit from making sure you’re using an avatar:
Seeing a visual representation of a human figure or face may give readers a stronger sense that they are communicating with a person; this sense, in turn, may lead them to be more likely to feel a sense of emotional connection, leading to a greater likelihood of helping. […]
Most basically, these results suggest a link between avatar use and receiving a response to online questions, although the present study does not preclude the possibility that some factor other than the avatar leads to such a response.
More broadly, the results underscore the potential value of avatars as part of various online forums organized around social support and helping. Sites that facilitate expressions of support for individuals dealing with trauma, illness, or addiction, for example, may benefit from allowing users to easily select and use an avatar. This is particularly relevant given the importance of social support to users of medical support sites.
People like to know — even though intellectually, we already know — that there’s a person we’re talking to behind the username. The avatar may represent a visual cue — a reminder, if you will — that indeed, that username is a person, an emotional human being just like ourselves.
Taylor, L.D. (2010). Avatars and Emotional Engagement in Asynchronous Online Communication. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.