Can our virtual representations change our behavior—and how we see ourselves? On the PBS blog Media Shift, Terri Thornton surveys the research into how humans and their avatars interact. Take the “Proteus Effect,” which Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson defines as “how an avatar's appearance changes your physical attitude.” Bailenson says that taller avatars can prompt people to negotiate more confidently in real life, for instance. In researcher Nick Yee’s dissertation—Yee was a student of Bailenson—he describes how people given attractive avatars demonstrated more confidence in the physical world than those who had ugly avatars.
Thornton cites other research that suggests watching your avatar exercise can motivate you to get up and work out. Finally, Thornton talks to head of a Second Life-based church who shares an anecdote about a transgender individual going through gender reassignment surgery, who found that using an avatar helped ease the transition. “Her experience in Second Life was a very positive experience in being addressed as the woman she thought she was on the inside, and being treated that way in a religious community,” says Kimberly Knight of the Koinonia Church.
Personally, my most observable psychological reaction to an avatar is the depression I feel when looking at my pudgy Mii on Wii Fit. The Wii exercise program wants to shame me into losing weight. So far, the indignity has motivated me only to stop weighing myself with when I log on to work out with a little Rhythm Boxing.
Read more on Media Shift.