Do you control your avatar, or does your avatar control you?

Virtual environments allow individuals to dramatically alter their self-representation. More important, studies have shown that people infer their expected behaviors and attitudes from observing their avatar’s appearance, a phenomenon known as the Proteus effect. For example, users given taller avatars negotiated more aggressively than users given shorter avatars. Two studies are reported here that extend our understanding of this effect. The first study extends the work beyond laboratory settings to an actual online community. It was found that both the height and attractiveness of an avatar in an online game were significant predictors of the player’s performance. In the second study, it was found that the behavioral changes stemming from the virtual environment transferred to subsequent face-to-face interactions. Participants were placed in an immersive virtual environment and were given either shorter or taller avatars. They then interacted with a confederate for about 15 minutes. In addition to causing a behavioral difference within the virtual environment, the authors found that participants given taller avatars negotiated more aggressively in subsequent face-to-face interactions than participants given shorter avatars. Together, these two studies show that our virtual bodies can change how we interact with others in actual avatar-based online communities as well as in subsequent face-to-face interactions.

Source: “The Proteus Effect: Implications of Transformed Digital Self-Representation on Online and Offline Behavior” from Communication Research, Vol. 36, No. 2, 285-312 (2009)


The study extends research on the Proteus effect by demonstrating that avatars can prime negative attitudes and cognition in desktop virtual settings. Experiment 1 shows that, after virtual group discussions, participants using black-cloaked avatars developed more aggressive intentions and attitudes but less group cohesion than those using white-cloaked avatars. In Experiment 2, individual participants using a Ku Klux Klan (KKK)-associated avatar created more aggressive Thematic Apperception Test stories in comparison to a control group. Participants using the KKK avatar also wrote less affiliative stories in comparison to those employing avatars dressed as doctors. Overall, the resulting pattern of activation of negative thoughts (i.e., aggression) coupled with the inhibition of inconsistent thoughts (i.e., cohesion, affiliation) is consistent with principles of current priming models and provides initial evidence for automatic cognitive priming in virtual settings.

Source: “The Priming Effects of Avatars in Virtual Settings” from Communication Research, Vol. 36, No. 6, 838-856 (2009)

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