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).