Me, Myself and My Avatar—What’s the Big Deal?

In one of the most chilling episodes of Black Mirror, the modern British answer to The Twilight Zone, near-future humans lead meaningless lives of drudgery yet are compelled to push forward day after day by the allure of earning points to spend on trifles for their avatars (digital representations of themselves). They are unwittingly enslaved by the same gamification trend that we see all around us today.

In advance of the proliferation of virtual reality technology, university studies across the world are working to uncover the effects of living with and through our avatars. Researchers have shown that interacting with our virtual twins can change the way we think and behave. Luckily, there is reason for optimism, according to Felix Chang, an IBM researcher and designer who previously worked in Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

“Interesting things occur when you change your virtual appearance,” Chang said during a presentation at South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive earlier this year. “You actually shift your behavior to match what is expected of you.”

Chang pointed to one finding from Palo Alto showing that people who were represented by taller digital doppels showed more confidence than those with shorter virtual counterparts. Faced with a negotiation after the virtual reality exercise, the people who had taller avatars fought more aggressively for extra money regardless of their real-world height. Another study showed that people who guided their avatars to eat carrots instead of candy were less likely to eat unhealthy treats following their participation in the study.

“Psychologist Albert Bandura proposes that we learn from our social role models,” Chang explained. “That is, in any given situation, we refer to social cues to decide how we should act. A great example of this is an elevator—there’s no inherent reason for all of us to be facing forward.”

Bandura also concludes that the more similar we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate their behavior. “This is really where virtual reality and avatars come in. In [virtual reality], it’s so easy for us to change to the way we would like. And behaving the way we would like [virtually] actually can shift the way we behave [in real life].”

This article appears in the June 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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