Psychology of Avatars and Virtual Experiences

In the burgeoning field of virtual psychology, researchers are finding out that they ways people act in their virtual selves is similar to real life. Social interactions, ranging from interpersonal body space to group influences in virtual worlds seem  pretty much the same as in real life (see Get a second life).

But the converse can also be true - when an avatar goes through or how he or she changes can also affect how players perceive themselves. Sometimes this would seem for the good - for instance in Psychology of Avatars, researchers describe the work of Stanford psychologists Yee and Bailenson who found that players implanted into the body of a senior citizen reduced their negative stereotypes toward the elderly significantly. This same group also found that players with taller avatars seemed to have greater confidence and those with attractive avatars were more likely to walk closer to and talk to new acquaintances.

The implications abound for children or adults who may be playing for hours in online virtual environments.  What your avatars does or experiences can affect you.

Obviously there can be positive effects of positive virtual characters and environments, and there is reason to believe that children would be just as susceptible (if not more) to these positive projections than adults. For instance, studies have shown that children who are very afraid of dogs can greatly reduce their fear after watching a film clip of a child happily playing with a dog (Bandura and Menlove, 1968).  After only 4 days of watching the film, more than half of the children we were willing to play in a pen with a dog while everyone else left the room.

The military is even investigating how positive psychology and team-fostering experiences in virtual environments can promote real-life changes in attitude and character here.

But what of a 'negative' avatar who is aggressive or exhibits risky behavior? Playing in virtual life may not be a harmless activity at all. For more on this, check out Negative avatars can prime antisocial thoughts.

Proteus Effect - How Avatar Changes Online Behavior

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