New research suggests you are what you avatar

As my recent article, “The Dark Psychology of Internet Trolls,” seemed to generate quite a bit of discussion, I thought that this research on avatars might prove interesting as well.

Researchers Gunwoo Yoon and Patrick Vargas wanted to see if the nature of an avatar, assigned to individual video game players, had an effect on their subsequent behaviors.

An avatar is simply an image you choose to represent you online, particularly in a video game.  For example, many of the people who comment on AMERICAblog have chosen avatars, images, to associate with their online profile.  Or when you play a video game, and choose between an image of an elf and a dwarf to represent your character, that’s your avatar.

In order to investigate avatars, Yoon and Vargars enrolled about 200 college students. The students were to play an online action/combat game for a short period. The students had to fight off enemies in the game scenarios. Each student was assigned an avatar. Some got Superman (good), some got Harry Potter villain Voldemort (evil), and some got a circle (neutral).

Two of the lead characters from the 2009 movie "Avatar."

Two of the lead characters from the 2009 movie “Avatar.”

After playing the game, the volunteers were then told that they were taking part in an unrelated experiment. They were given the choice to decide how much and what type of food to give future players in the game. They could select chocolate (good), or hot chili (bad), and also select how much of each would be given to the future game players.

What they found was that those who had the Superman avatar gave twice as much chocolate as hot chili. The Voldemort avatars did the opposite, giving future players much more chili than chocolate. Those who had neutral avatars (the circle) used less of both chocolate and chili.

Later, they repeated the experiment with a different group of participants. But in this group, some of the students who were Superman and some Voldemorts were just asked to WATCH the game after getting their avatars. Others were assigned avatars and participated. Then they were all asked to select chocolate or chili for subsequent players. The results were basically the same. Those with Superman avatars selected more chocolate, and the Voldemorts chose more hot chili. Those who merely watched did the same, but they chose less of the chocolate or chili as their player-avatar colleagues did.

So, at least in the short term, it seems like assigning someone a positive image, or role mode,l produces a positive effect on his behavior. Conversely, giving someone a negative role model causes him to respond more negatively.

It would be interesting to see just how long these positive or negative behaviors last after the game ends. And if making the game longer might extend those behaviors temporally.

It also leads to other questions that spring from this research. Could surrounding people with positive role models in daily life increase their positive behaviors? Could reminding people to be good, through videos, commercials, etc. cause more positive behaviors? Do these same things happen in children? And if so, does the positive (and negative) benefit last the same amount of time as it does in college students? If so, perhaps these techniques would be useful in education. Or in group therapy for people who are criminal offenders.

And what might this say about television, and movies, and even political blogs?  Are we unintentionally reinforcing certain aspects of the culture that we might otherwise wish to de-emphasize?

What do you think?


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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  • rose maryawn

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  • http://thebalivilla.net/ blivilla
  • Bill_Perdue

    I like your avatar. Mine is from the union groups at LaborNotes and is very popular in left wing union circles. So was my previous avatar which was something like this

  • docsterx

    Yeah, thanks, I did. They do get a little bigger there, but for some, it’s not enough to show good detail.

  • docsterx

    “Braaaainz” (sung to the tune of “Benghaaaaazi”)

  • 2karmanot

    “What about the ones that wake up dead?” Now that would be a grave situation indeed.

  • 2karmanot

    We could use more good zombies like you Doc.

  • 2karmanot

    Sounds like the ‘Chicago’ experiment redo.

  • 4th Turning

    You’re looking at hundreds-maybe thousands-out here that’ve already
    guessed as much. And we get billed for it anyway.

  • 4th Turning

    What about the ones that wake up dead?

    (Thanks for the tickle-so much rotten
    news to try to keep up with. It can get
    a feller down some days.)

  • 4th Turning

    I’m no lawyer but I play one on tv and we is looking at a juicy malpractice suit
    here. Recommend you contact the attorney listed at the top of this page (unless you suspect that might only be internet profile enrichment).

  • Indigo

    I did that. Interesting scroll. Thanks.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    My avatar was actually a Naja kaouthia, Monocled Cobra. I used that pic just because it was a photo I took, but Naja pallida is the Red Spitting Cobra. Red hair… sparring about political stuff… seemed apt at the time.

  • Moderator3

    Look at their profile.

  • docsterx

    You’re presuming that I put them to sleep in the first place. Most internists don’t use anesthesia in practice.

  • docsterx

    Interesting point. Thanks.

  • docsterx

    As a biology undergrad who had 4 years of Latin in HS and is a geek, yeah if figured out the name and its relation to the avatar. I thought it was a great snake. I thought that you might be a Bill Haast/Serpentarium fan.

  • The_Fixer

    If you mouse over them, they get a little bigger – but not much. Yeah, it would be nice to see ‘em bigger. I had to crop mine to fit Disqus’ size requirement.

  • docsterx

    It would be nice if the avatars enlarged a little more to bring out the detail.

  • docsterx

    Thanks, I’ll take a look!

  • ronbo

    I’m gonna cry… :-(

    Or maybe…
    invade a nation while drone assassinating a a couple weddings then redact the Constitution.

  • docsterx

    The point is that they were out of character (i.e. no longer plying the game and were in a different part of the experiment that, they were told, had nothing to do with the avatar/war game that they had played previously. They still carried the “stigma” of the avatar (good, evil or neutral) with them outside of the gme and after the game was over.

  • docsterx

    I thought about the chocolate/chili choice, too. Sometimes I prefer hot sauce to chocolate. The subjects didn’t get to pick an avatar. The avatars were assigned to them and only the three avatars described were used.

  • Karey Jean Smith

    I seem to remember there being pricks before the Internet.

  • Karey Jean Smith

    They were told it was a different experiment but were to give the items to other players of the game. As a gamer, I would still be influenced by the role I had been assigned to play in that game. The research itself acknowledges the connection between their role in the game and their actions related to that game.

  • docsterx

    Actually, up close, you can see a badly sutured scar, wild eyes, you know, the usual decaying zombie look.

  • docsterx

    One of the first posts I wrote for America Blog was done around Halloween. I thought the zombiedoc was appropriate.

  • docsterx

    Interesting question. Some trolls seem to get rewarded (get comments, are attacked) extensively on some sites. So their behavior is reinforced. Perhaps they think since they’re getting what they crave online, they might be able to get what they want if they continue behaving like that in real time. That would be an interesting study.

  • Karey Jean Smith

    As a RPG gamer, my reaction to this research was “duh!” — you play good characters as good and evil characters as evil. Of course an evil character is going to give other players hot chili.

  • 2karmanot

    Yes, one must wonder if trolls are born under a bridge or choose such a habitat because of conditioning—– the old ‘born’ troll or ‘choice’ troll controversy. #snark/irony

  • 2karmanot

    The idea of an inu roshi is most compelling. Look up ‘Choju Giga’ on Google. It is a delightful play on Buddhist types.

  • 2karmanot

    Cobras are cool. The ones I saw in India liked to dance.

  • 2karmanot

    I never got beyond my collection of Disney character band-aids myself.

  • 2karmanot

    God only knows you did the best you could without an app.

  • 2karmanot

    Thanks Fixer….

  • The_Fixer

    I remember that. And it made sense after I looked up your username on Wikipedia to find out what a Naja padilla was (I knew that had to mean something and didn’t know what).

    Looking people’s usernames up on Wikipedia is not something I frequently do. But once in a while, when I am between high-powered projects (!), curiousity gets the best of me.

  • The_Fixer

    Well, to those of us who have seen real duct tape, most of the stuff they sell these days is like so much else being sold – a pale imitation of the original.

    A lot of it comes from China. Everything from poor quality “cellophane” tape to crumbly cardboard boxes. Chinese duct tape is in the same category.

  • The_Fixer

    And he’s (I think) is adorable!

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    My original avatar was a cobra, all hooded up, but not sure anyone even noticed that. :)

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    It’s hard to find good, real duct tape these days. They seem to think that anything with a silverish backing and weaved structure can be passed off. My father used to bring home rolls of the stuff he used in the military, and if you accidentally got that stuck to yourself, it would rip a layer of skin off when you removed it. It was strong enough to hold pretty much anything, truly like the myth.

  • 2karmanot

    I assumed that Doc was just facing the future.

  • 2karmanot

    I just knew it! rotfl!

  • 2karmanot

    Gracious dear sir and gentlemanly!

  • 2karmanot

    :-) It’s the smile I see.

  • 2karmanot

    I picked Bodhi dog to be my avatar, because this picture of him was taken on his first run on
    Algonquin beach. We had just adopted him after learning he had been imprisoned in a cage and abused for most of the first year of his life. Run Free!

  • 2karmanot

    The best of both worlds: A Chimayo mole chilli.

  • 2karmanot

    Mark, as to your last sentence, may I suggest you read Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle.’ You can find it on line here:

    http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/faculty/budgett/classes/art19/spectacle.pdf

  • The_Fixer

    Duct tape nearly is magic. Except for ducts. It seems that it really is lousy for taping ducts together. It shrinks up and allows the ducts to get leaky.

    Holding up glasses – just fine, though. But that’s not my secret.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Are you implying duct tape isn’t magic?

  • The_Fixer

    If I really had magic, things would be a hell of a lot different around here :)

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Or duct tape. That always works.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    If you have magic holding it up, who needs a nose! :)

  • The_Fixer

    He must have a nose, that’s what’s holding the glasses up. Just like my real self.

    Seriously, there was no option to make a prominent nose on the site where I made him.

  • 2patricius2

    Well in the Harry Potter stories, “to obtain any of the parts of the animal, it would have to be given freely by the Unicorn, or be slain, or retrieved after the unicorn was dead. The latter two would probably be from some dark magic (or accident) as unicorns are pure animals, untainted by evil. So to slay one would be a crime against magic itself.” (Quote is from Science Fiction & Fantasy website)

    As far as the monocle is concerned, according to Wikipedia, the monocle “was introduced by the dandy’s quizzing glass of the 1790s, as a sense of high fashion.”

    So I would say that your avatar means you are a pure being who wears high fashion. :-)

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Is it just hard to see, or is your avatar lacking a nose? Maybe you’re more Voldemort than you think.

  • 2patricius2

    I like hot chili. I prefer hot chili to chocolate. Does that make me more like Voldemort? I don’t think so.

    Also, these were avatars assigned to the participants. What does the research say about avatars that they picked on their own?

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Honestly, I find it kinda creeps me out, too. lol

  • The_Fixer

    I didn’t want to use my own photo, so I made my avatar to look very much like me (well, a cartoonish representation of me). So being as my avatar is a cartoonish representation of me, does that mean I behave more “cartoonish” online? Wait, don’t answer that…

    I once took a picture of myself dressed pretty much exactly as my avatar is dressed (not much of a problem, I generally dress similarly to my little buddy) and shared it with online friends who had never seen me. When the laughter died down, they all agreed that it did indeed look like me. I also showed it to my real-life friends, and got pretty much the same reaction.

    I wonder what the inverse of that experiment would be? Say, allow avatarless playing, observe the player’s behavior, then have them select an avatar that represents good vs. evil. I wonder what level of connection to a person’s avatar would be observed, if it would extend to “real life” and for how long after the playing experience.

  • Monophylos Fortikos

    I act exactly like a unicorn wearing a monocle!

    Make of that what you will.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    I wonder how much trollish behavior continues into real life after people get away with it online, and how much that contributes to the society of pricks we seem to be actively cultivating.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Mine’s a tabby cat playing pool, using mice as the balls. Take that as you will.

    Here’s the original image:

  • SkippyFlipjack

    If so, he’d better hope his patients don’t wake up early.

  • 4th Turning

    Agree. But I’ve convinced myself it’s a surgical mask.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Speaking of avatars, yours is disturbing.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    My avatar is the reason I’m always nice.

  • Indigo

    for a while . . . acting out imprints, so to speak, and persists but eventually fades. Or maybe not. Certainly, the research project is allusive but I’m doubtful about suggesting an imprinted identity that persists. Maybe it does but more research is needed. I know this much about imprinting avatars, the high school stereotypes (call them avatars) sometimes persist for a lifetime, I’ve lived long enough to see flaming jerks from 10th grade continue to flame, well into retirement and right into an early grave. [Oops! That was supposed to be a reply to docsterx]

  • docsterx

    True, but the acting out continued. It continued after the game ended and continued into the following experiment that the subjects were told was unrelated to the video game. At that point, the students were no longer Superman or Voldemort, they were just students participating in an “unrelated” experiment. So the behavior persisted after the experiment ended. That lead the researchers and reviewers to suspect that the avatar continued to influence behavior for a time after the end of the experiment.

  • Indigo

    It sounds to me like the players were given an avatar and they acted it out accordingly. If I were Voldemort, I’d give chili too. If I were Superman, I’d give chocolate because Superman’s a good guy. Voldemort is not. As things stand, I’m a dog sitting in zazen, practicing detachment.

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