Current Issue: Vol. 7-1 (03/09/2009)



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Dissertation - The Proteus Effect

In my dissertation, I addressed the issue of transformed identity in virtual environments. Below is the abstract and link to a PDF of the full text.


Digital media allows us to make both dramatic and subtle changes to our self-representations with an ease not available elsewhere. These changes can greatly affect how we interact with others in virtual environments. For example, facial and behavioral mimicry can make us more likeable and persuasive. In addition to gaining social advantages, our avatars (digital representations of ourselves) can also change how we behave. This occurs via conforming to expected behaviors of the avatar - a process referred to as the Proteus Effect.

I conducted a series of four pilot studies that explore the Proteus Effect. In the first study, I found that participants in attractive avatars walked closer to and disclosed more information to a stranger than participants in unattractive avatars. In the second study, I found that participants in taller avatars negotiated more aggressively in a bargaining task than participants in shorter avatars. In the third study, I demonstrated that the Proteus Effect occurs in an actual online community. And in the final study, I showed that the Proteus Effect persists outside of the virtual environment. Placing someone in a taller avatar changes how they consequently negotiate in a face-to-face setting.

The two dissertation studies extended these pilot studies by attempting to clarify the underlying process that leads to the Proteus Effect. In the first dissertation study, I isolated and teased out the unique contribution of the Proteus Effect from an alternative explanation - priming. Priming is a process whereby visual stimulus (such as words or photographs) leads someone to behave in a semantically-consistent manner. In the second dissertation study, I extrapolated from existing theories of stereotype formation to examine the consequences of placing users in implausible bodies that fall outside the range of normal human variation (such as a very short or very tall body).


Nick, this is great work and I have witnessed much of this myself recently as my AV, involved for some 8 months in SL's social and trading communities, has recently changed.

As part of character progression I have altered physically, now looking around 70 years old and some 2ft shorter while still the same 'character'.

While for me theere has necessarily been a noticeable change in the reactions of previous friends (though in new relationships certainly). In my own confidence and attitude with those around me, however, I have noticed a marked difference.

Essentially, while the same character and the same person sat here as observer (watching the same social relationships) my attitudes have noticeably changed. The new 'physical' AV has made my character 'feel' quieter, slightly more passive and 'isolated', and yet this new AV seems to have (and yes, I know how oddly esoteric this sounds) a greater inner strength than before (I assume due to his advanced years in appearance).

This is great work. Truly fascinating stuff. My hat is off you Nick.


Posted by: Nik Hewitt (SL: Oolon Sputnik) on July 4, 2007 3:30 PM

I know that I often choose an avatar based upon how their appearance affects the way I think and feel. Unfortuneately, character creation often only lets me look at the character, so I often can't tell how it will feel to play the character until I'm in the game.

Posted by: Kldran on July 4, 2007 5:45 PM

Great work!

The implications of this are huge.

People know that their behavior is affected by their (genetic) looks in real life. And there is a huge industry on changing your physical appearance. Now one can also play a MMOG and change his behavior.

What would be the accumulated influence of the proteus effect on an adult who played 4 hours per day since he/she was a small child?

Posted by: Gnosis on July 5, 2007 3:09 AM

Here is a sort of annectdotal corralary (reverse)

Unconciously wary that an avatar might effect my self perception, I can't play an ugly avatar, or a role that would be meek or secondary. Personally, even brief attempts at being a tauren or an undead gave me an alienated feeling. Obvously others can handle it.

Class roles might also be interesting. Not that jungian stuff stands up to much rigor, but it would be interesting to at least glance that way. Do extroverts play tanks, etc?

I guess there are chicken and egg arguments, and a person taking a leap into a role they werent naturally drawn to, might shape you that way.

For example, if i were to force myself to be a healer, the excercise might build mental muscles that allowed me to be less self absorbed... but of course, if you don't like doing something its difficult to neglect other affairs enough to level a toon through boring quests.

Clearly off topic... the cure to WoW "addiction" might be forcing people into roles their self image can relate to?

however, as an "outward bound" sort a of thing, if it were "work" and not "recreation" breaking people into performing unnacustemed roles might be potentially enlightening or reinforcing assertiveness as you suggest.

Posted by: shander on July 11, 2007 4:48 PM

Great work, the motivation and drives among MMO players are hard to gauge though.

I myself started playing non-human players from the first MMO I ever played (EQ) and absolutely loved the very idea of becoming or acting as a non-human sentient being. The thought of how much differently they viewed the world intrigued me, and drove me to RP as often as possible. I've been through many race-specific guilds in all of my MMO escapades.

I was 10 at the time, believe it or not. I honestly admit that I became addicted to the social levels of MMO's and had to quit it cold turkey at my parents prodding. But I do think that it helped my English skills.

As my final point, I'd like to share that after taking a personality test in highschool, I was graded as INFP (I forget what it stands for...). Perhaps you could compare personalities with avatar preference?

Posted by: Zinian on August 5, 2007 4:22 PM

I'm the opposite of the above poster. Whenever I play an MMO (I've played Ragnarok, EQ, and WoW in that order) I usually pick the most humanoid-looking characters, preferring to sport medium to long black hair. As a result, my mains are a 38 Human Shadowknight on EQ and a 42 Human Paladin on WoW (all characters are human on Ragnarok, and my play was on a private server with a 170 Assassin Cross). In tabletop RPGs that involve character race choices, I always pick a Human at first, and when I am game master my NPCs are human about 80% of the time. Is there some sort of underlying psychology behind this choice of all humans all the time?

Posted by: Treima on August 23, 2007 8:05 PM

Excellent work! A scholar and a gentleman!

Posted by: Jesse on August 23, 2007 8:41 PM

The doubled edged sword of role-playing. Freedom to express anew, but at cost of becoming attached.

Posted by: Tyler C on August 25, 2007 5:08 PM

"Personally, even brief attempts at being a tauren or an undead gave me an alienated feeling. Obvously others can handle it."

As my two main characters are an undead mage and a tauren shaman, I need to comment on this. :)

I have never played humans, dwarves or night elves, they just don't feel right. The notion of 'handling it' seems silly, because to me they are natural choices, and the alliance races feel awkward and unnatural. I feel the choices for races made by Bliz designers have been excellent, due to nice differences in not just the abilites, but also the feel and character of the races.

No wonder the worldpvp works in WoW - you are a very natural enemy to me. Why do I kill 3X lowbies when they run across me in the wilderness? It's obvious - humans and night elves are perfect enemies. Weak, intolerant, squishy. A little disgusting, if I may. No, really. I find it a totally moral and a good action to kill human cubs - what do you call them... children? It's the right thing to do, after all - it would just feel like exterminating pests.

I most definitely could not handle playing a human character for more than 30 minutes. It would feel like wearing a really bad sheep costume to a mages' party.

These differences in players make an excellent setting for games like these. Real, fanatical Horde playes. Real, fanatical Alliance players. Many truly despise the opposing faction, what else is there to it than war?

Posted by: Alv22 on August 31, 2007 1:38 AM

I have my doubts on the methodoly/control of this. I feel the basic premis has merit I would like to be able to see more clearly how the same subjects act while controling characters with difering profiles that they normally use as avatars and metrics of behaviour while in 1st person mode vs. 3d person mode.
Good idea, carry on but imo not quite there yet.

Posted by: Phil Crosland a.k.a. Andric on August 31, 2007 5:55 PM

Phil should not criticize methodology without spell/grammar check turned on!

Posted by: Sheeznit Naheed on September 2, 2007 10:26 AM

Brilliant research Nick!

However, in video games that allow player versus player combat (PvP) many hardcore gamers will choose a character based solely on attributes or the ability to blend into the environment. To reify the concept here are two examples:

1) If a tall warrior gets more strength, you will see more tall warriors. If you have to change species to attain more strength (for example choosing a troll instead of a human), you will see a preponderance of inhuman characters.

2) In a standard MMORPG a huge, blue character will vividly stand out against scenery while a tiny, green character will more easily blend into the environment. As a result, aware players will choose the smaller, more naturally colored character.

I would love to see a characterization of online gamers with the aforementioned profiles.

Posted by: Seth on January 28, 2008 4:10 PM

Yes, this is great work!

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Posted by: raleigh on March 20, 2010 11:59 AM

Very interesting work. I have been interested in whether avatar experiences can translate into realtime behaviour change and wonder if you looked at whether avatars used condoms or engaged in safer sex behaviours in dating relationships in Second Life?
Kim Dolan
Peterborough AIDS Resource Network

Posted by: Kim Dolan on March 22, 2010 8:50 PM

Great work. Im an studying you as a Communication major at The University of California San Diego right now and your work is quite influential.

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