Virtual self can affect reality self

Jan 24, 2011 By Miles O'Brien and Ann Kellan

If you spend a lot of time online, you may even have an electronic alter ego--an avatar. An avatar is a movable image that people design to represent themselves in virtual reality environments or in cyberspace.

"For some reason, I always pick really short people," says Stanford undergraduate student and avid video gamer Oliver Castaneda.

"I have multiple variations," says Michelle Del Rosario, another gamer and undergraduate student at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford University. "Sometimes I choose to look like a really fun and bubbly character. Sometimes I want to look very serious."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

Sounds like avatars are for fun and games but could avatars actually change us? Jeremy Bailenson thinks so. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), he created the VHIL to study, among other things, the power avatars exert on their real world masters.

"As a lab, we've gone a bit out on a limb and argued that the reason you have an avatar is because an avatar makes you more human than human. It gives you the ability to do things you could never do in the physical world. You can be 10 years younger. You can swap your gender. You can be 30 pounds heavier or lighter. Any behavior or appearance you can imagine, you can transform your avatar to embody," explains Bailenson.

Sometimes, avatars are designed to be ideal versions of their creators, and there's now evidence that the persona begins to influence the real life persona.

"Remember, in the virtual world--height, beauty--these things are free. We've demonstrated that if I increase the height of your avatar by 10 centimeters, you'll win a negotiation compared to if I decrease the height of your avatar by 10 centimeters."

Bailenson gives another example. "I use algorithms to age a 20-year-old undergraduate's avatar and then I give that undergraduate the opportunity to save money or to spend it frivolously. The undergraduate will put more money in savings as opposed to go out and spend it on partying."

Your avatar also may affect your fitness. In another test, Del Rosario puts on a head-mounted display that reveals an avatar that looks just like her. As she runs in place, her avatar runs, too, and visibly loses weight. When Del Rosario stands still, her avatar stops, and gets fatter. As you might suspect, it is important that the resemble its creator.

"So, the power comes from seeing yourself in the third person gaining and losing weight in accordance with your own physical behavior," says Bailenson. "Twenty-four hours later, people exercised more after being exposed to watching themselves run than watching someone else run."

And, as it turns out, Bailenson and colleagues say we also tend to prefer others who resemble us. The researchers reached that conclusion in 2004 when they subtly morphed students' faces with those of the presidential candidates. The students favored the hybrid candidate that included their own features.

"Even though nobody consciously detected that their own face was morphed inside the image, people whose face was morphed with Bush were more likely to vote for Bush in terms of their self-report on the survey. People whose face was morphed with Kerry indicated they'd be more likely to vote for Kerry. It's very powerful stuff," Bailenson says.

He believes avatars will soon play an even bigger role in our lives online. How we shape our own avatars and how we interact with others could have profound influences on our behavior.

"People like things that are similar to them whether it's verbally, non-verbally or an appearance. We like people that look like us," Bailenson explains. "We wanted to ask the big question in a world where I can make myself look more like you--how does that affect my ability to influence you?"

"Yeah," says Castaneda. "I think we're just beginning to explore all the potential there for, you know, re-imagining yourself in different worlds."

And the line between reality and virtual reality gets blurrier every day.

Explore further: Napster co-founder to invest in allergy research

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New research: What does your avatar say about you?

Jul 26, 2010

Old or young, beautiful or sinister - the choices are endless when designing an avatar or a virtual alter ego. In the end, do people choose one that is really different from themselves? Usually not, according to new Concordia ...

Research shows avatars can negatively affect users

Nov 10, 2009

( -- Although often seen as an inconsequential feature of digital technologies, one's self-representation, or avatar, in a virtual environment can affect the user's thoughts, according to research by a University ...

What's your eco-attitude?

Sep 29, 2010

Academics at the University of Derby are using the virtual reality platform Second Life to gauge people's unconscious attitudes towards 'green' issues such as recycling.

The Next Best Thing to You

May 15, 2009

( -- Have you ever wished you could be in two places at once? Perhaps you've had the desire to create a copy of yourself that could stand in for you at a meeting, freeing you up to work on more ...

Recommended for you

Study reveals mature motorists worse at texting and driving

14 hours ago

A Wayne State University interdisciplinary research team in the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences has made a surprising discovery: older, more mature motorists—who typically are better drivers in ...

Napster co-founder to invest in allergy research

Dec 17, 2014

(AP)—Napster co-founder Sean Parker missed most of his final year in high school and has ended up in the emergency room countless times because of his deadly allergy to nuts, shellfish and other foods.

LA mayor plans 7,000 police body cameras in 2015

Dec 16, 2014

Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a plan Tuesday to equip 7,000 Los Angeles police officers with on-body cameras by next summer, making LA's police department the nation's largest law enforcement agency to move ...

Merriam-Webster names 'culture' word of the year

Dec 15, 2014

A nation, a workplace, an ethnicity, a passion, an outsized personality. The people who comprise these things, who fawn or rail against them, are behind Merriam-Webster's 2014 word of the year: culture.

In Curiosity Hacked, children learn to make, not buy

Dec 14, 2014

With her right hand, my 8-year-old daughter, Kalian, presses the red-hot soldering iron against the circuit board. With her left hand, she guides a thin, tin wire until it's pressing against both the circuit board and the ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.