Virtual World Personalities Affect Real Life Behaviour: Study

First Posted: Feb 11, 2014 09:24 AM EST

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, Urban-Champaign, reveals the impact of virtual avatars on real world behavior.

Adding to the debate on how video games influence behavior, a new study reveals that the manner in which gamers represent themselves in the virtual world may influence their behavior towards others in the real world.  The study was led by Gunwoo Yoon of the University of Illinois.

"Our results indicate that just five minutes of role-play in virtual environments as either a hero or villain can easily cause people to reward or punish anonymous strangers," explains Yoon.

Yoon and co-author Patrick Vargas explain that in a virtual environment people can adopt different identities and face circumstances that they usually can't deal with in real life.

The researchers wanted to check whether taking up a heroic or villainous avatar in an online game affected everyday behavior of the gamer. They conducted a test on 194 graduates.

These graduates were a part of two unrelated studies. In one they were randomly assigned to play a Superman (a heroic avatar), Voldemort (a villainous avatar) or a circle (a neutral avatar) game. The participants played the game for five minutes in which they had to battle their respective enemies.

In the second test they were made to taste either chocolate or chili sauce and give it to a future participant. They had to drop their choice into a plastic dish, which the other participant would consume from.

The researchers notice that, the participants who played the role of Superman, on an average poured twice as much chocolate as chili sauce for the other participants. Also they significantly poured more chocolate than the other avatars. The students, who played Voldemort, poured twice as much chili sauce than chocolate and they poured more chili sauce than any other avatars. 

In the another experiment that involved 125 undergraduates provided the same results and confirmed the hypothesis that virtual avatars have a strong effect on the behavior of a person in real life. But the degree to which the participant relates to the avatar was not established.

"In virtual environments, people can freely choose avatars that allow them to opt into or opt out of a certain entity, group, or situation," says Yoon. "Consumers and practitioners should remember that powerful imitative effects can occur when people put on virtual masks."

The finding was published in the journal Psychological Science.

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