There’s a Name for Why Your Video Game Character’s Looks Can Affect Your Actions

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And it’s called the Proteus effect, named for the shape-shifting Greek god.

By Peter C. Baker

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(Illustration: Jason Solo)

Every day, millions of people log into virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft, where they choose or design their own avatars, customizing everything from their height and clothing to their gender and skin tone. According to researchers, these choices are more than aesthetic: Picking how you look can also mean choosing how you’ll behave.

In a study by Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson, published in Human Communication Research, participants who were assigned conventionally attractive avatars quickly began acting more self-assured. They got closer to other avatars, and talked more about themselves. Participants who were assigned taller avatars expressed more confidence and negotiated more aggressively over money. Yee and Bailenson dubbed these transformations the Proteus effect, after the shape-shifting Greek god.

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A version of this story first appeared in the

November/December 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

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A follow-up study suggested the effect might carry over from the virtual world to face-to-face interactions. Intrigued by this possibility, a colleague of Yee’s named Grace Ahn investigated how in-game experiences altered the way college students behaved long after they’d logged out. The results are tantalizing: People who guide their avatars to grow or cut down virtual trees are more likely to reduce their paper consumption for at least a week after their virtual experience. Likewise, people who watch their avatars suffer health consequences from drinking soda become more receptive to anti-soda public-health messaging.

The more common avatars become — venture capitalists dumped nearly $1.2 billion into virtual- and augmented-reality start-ups in the first quarter of 2016 alone — the more influential the Proteus effect is likely to become. The old saying holds that where the mind leads, the body will follow. When we’re using new, virtual bodies, the opposite might prove equally true. So choose your avatar carefully.

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