Do the avatars you create for online communication reflect who you truly are? Researchers from York University conducted a study to find out which physical and personality traits we express, or suppress, through our choice of avatars.
An avatar is an image you choose to represent yourself in the virtual world. It can range from a simple drawing (Nintendo Wii) to detailed three-dimensional renderings of characters (World of Warcraft). Prior research has found that people typically choose and prefer avatars perceived to be similar to themselves.
For the study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers analyzed the ease with which others could guess the real personality behind the avatar.
To do this, one group of participants created customized avatars; then a different set of participants viewed and rated those avatars. The reviewers judged the creators on the “Big Five” major personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
According to the findings, certain personality traits were easier to guess than others. For example, extraversion and anxiety were easier to perceive based on an avatar compared to how open to new experiences or conscientious the person is. Outgoing and sociable individuals tend to create avatars that communicate their personality.
In contrast, those high in neuroticism tend to create avatars that don’t communicate their personality accurately. People who are more agreeable and more typical of the general population in personality tend to create avatars that elicit friendship intentions of others.
Avatars with open eyes, a smile or grin, an oval face, brown hair, and/or a sweater were more likely to appear friendly. In contrast, avatars with a neutral expression, or any other expression other than a smile, black hair, short hair, a hat, and/or sunglasses were less likely to appear friendly.
Two cues were specifically related to creator agreeableness and friendliness: open eyes and a neutral expression (a negative predictor). Based on the results, customizing an avatar to have open eyes and avoiding a neutral expression would be more likely to elicit agreeableness and friendship intentions.
Gender differences were also analyzed in the study. The researchers found that when rating avatars created by females, perceivers tended to rate them as being more contentious and open, even after taking into account the creator’s actual traits.
Based on previous studies, the researchers expected to see individuals relying on gender associations to determine personality. Surprisingly, avatar gender didn’t influence judgments in typical gender stereotypic directions.
“One possibility is that digital contexts activate different gender stereotypes than in real-world contexts, but more research is necessary to explore this,” said researcher and graduate student Katrina Fong.
The avatars used in this study were relatively simple, so the researchers caution on extending these results to more complex avatars, such as those found in three-dimensional digital worlds.
The findings do demonstrate, however, that avatars can offer accurate information about the creator’s personality, and that individuals high in agreeableness tend to create an avatar that others want to befriend — not unlike the real-world.