The other day, a commenter asked whether people “truly represent themselves for who they are, do they take on different personality characteristics while in their online persona, and how is their level of tolerance for disagreement affected?” One way to examine this question is to look how people provide based upon their choice of avatar — the pictorial representation of themselves in an online environment (such as virtual reality game).
Yee & Bailenson (2007) did just that and have some answers:
Across different behavioral measures and different representational manipulations, we observed the effect of an altered self-representation on behavior. Participants who had more attractive avatars exhibited increased self-disclosure and were more willing to approach opposite-gendered strangers after less than 1 minute of exposure to their altered avatar. In other words, the attractiveness of their avatars impacted how intimate participants were willing to be with a stranger.
In our second study, participants who had taller avatars were more willing to make unfair splits in negotiation tasks than those who had shorter avatars, whereas participants with shorter avatars were more willing to accept unfair offers than those who had taller avatars. Thus, the height of their avatars impacted how confident participants became.
These two studies show the dramatic and almost instantaneous effect that avatars have on behavior in digital environments.
But wait, you say, these are just laboratory studies! How do people behave in a real online world?
Well, the researchers (Yee et al., 2009) looked at that too 2 years later to see if the effects held up in real online interactions:
The first study extends the work beyond laboratory settings to an actual online community. It was found that both the height and attractiveness of an avatar in an online game were significant predictors of the player’s performance.
In the second study, it was found that the behavioral changes stemming from the virtual environment transferred to subsequent face-to-face interactions. Participants were placed in an immersive virtual environment and were given either shorter or taller avatars. They then interacted with a confederate for about 15 minutes. In addition to causing a behavioral difference within the virtual environment, the authors found that participants given taller avatars negotiated more aggressively in subsequent face-to-face interactions than participants given shorter avatars.
Together, these two studies show that our virtual bodies can change how we interact with others in actual avatar-based online communities as well as in subsequent face-to-face interactions.
Social presence — how much you feel connected to an online environment with others — is also impacted by avatar choice. Social presence is enhanced when high-visual realism is matched with high-behavioral realism — in other words, when attractiveness is combined with our expectations of attractiveness.
Behavioral and visual realism of agents must match to produce high social presence. When the two forms of realism mismatch (e.g., high-visual realism paired with low-behavioral realism), the outcome is worse than with an agent of low levels of both forms of realism (Bailenson et al., 2005). We see a similar pattern in our data. High levels of attractiveness and height produce the best results, low levels of both produce an intermediate result, and the mismatched conditions produced the worst results.
Mismatched conditions, in this study, meant an attractive but short avatar. Apparently the societal expectation is that attractiveness is naturally accompanied by height. Think “tall, dark and handsome” or a “tall, curvy blonde with long legs.” Of course people of moderate and short height can also be attractive, but it defies one of the components of most people’s unconscious definition of attractiveness.
The upshot is simple — your avatar can indeed impact how you interact and behave online. And if this is true in virtual worlds, it may very well be true in other online environments too (such as on a support forum). This is unsurprising, seeing as simply using a pseudonym in an online support forum makes it easier for people to discuss problems and concerns with others that they otherwise wouldn’t do face-to-face (Kummervold et al., 2002). If people can change their online behavior simply by choosing a false name, I can imagine their behavior might be more directly impacted by their choice of avatar. Yee et al.’s research suggests that this is indeed true.
Kummervold, P.E., Gammon, D., Bergvik, S., Johnsen, J-A K., Hasvold, T., Rosenvinge, J.H. (2002). Social support in a wired world: Use of online mental health forums in Norway. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 56(1), 59-65.
Yee, N. & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The effect of transformed self-representation on behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271-290.
Yee, N. Bailenson, J.N. & Ducheneaut, N. (2009). The Proteus effect: Implications of transformed digital self-representation on online and offline behavior. Communication Research, 36(2), 285-312.