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Influence of Avatars on Health: connection?

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posted on Nov, 8 2009 @ 10:05 PM
A Potential Relationship Between Obesity Research and Virtual Worlds
PDF version

...At first glance, increased use of the Internet, virtual worlds, and online gaming are likely to have a negative impact on the obesity epidemic because users are seated and sedentary in real life while they interact virtually. Furthermore, in a virtual world environment such as Second Life (SL) where users can customize their digital self-representations, or avatars, to be as thin and fit as they want to be, there may be less motivation for the users to be fit or lose weight in real life.

However, it is possible that self-representation by a fit, healthy avatar can have a positive impact on real life health behaviors. Yee and Bailenson (2007) use Deindividuation and Self Perception Theory to suggest that virtual reality users may adjust their identity to match that of their avatars. They suggest that “users in online environments may conform to the expectations and stereotypes of the identity of their avatars. Or more precisely, in line with self-perception theory, they conform to the behavior that they believe others would expect them to have”...

The authors describe two experiments in which the use of specific types of avatars supported evidence of the existence of the Proteus Effect.

In the first experiment participants were assigned avatars and asked to interact with others, online. According to the authors, the participants with the more attractive avatars were more relateable and more willing to share information about themselves, than those with unattractive avatars.

In the second experiment the avatars were distinguished by height. The participants were told to agree on how to split a sum of money. If they could agree, they received the money. The experiment suggested that those with the taller avatars were more likely to be the ones to initiate suggestions. Additionally, those with shorter avatars were more likely to accept a suggestion that was an unfair split.

Yee and Bailenson (2007) propose that in the first study avatar attractiveness impacted the level of intimacy people were willing to reach with strangers, and in the second study, avatar height affected people’s confidence.

Proteus Effect research delves into the concept that the avatars we use in virtual life affects how we act in real life.

In further research, Fox and Bailenson (in press, 2009) found that humans’ real world behavior is influenced by their own self-representing avatars’ behavior. Their experiment was an application of Social Cognitive Theory, which states that humans can learn behaviors from observing others. They found that people who watched self-representing avatars (i.e., designed to replicate their own physical characteristics) running on a treadmill were more likely to engage in voluntary exercise within the subsequent 24 hours than those who watched either another person’s avatar using a treadmill or an avatar doing nothing.

Does this have a potential impact on real life health?
Health professionals are beginning to conduct experiments in online environments to evaluate the effectiveness of support and treatment in online communities based on the principles that real life individuals will seek to mimic their virtual identities.

For example, the University of Houston's Texas Obesity Research Center (TORC) has begun an online program in SL— the largest online virtual world not specifically oriented toward gaming—for the purpose of fighting obesity. It is no secret in SL that many residents prefer their avatars to be thin.

1. Individuals with avatars who engage in physical activities in SL are more likely to engage in physical activities in real life.
2. Individuals with thinner avatars are more likely to be thinner in real life.
3. Avatar-respondents are more likely to report a heavier SL body size and higher real life BMI to a heavy avatar than to a thin avatar, since a heavy avatar conveys that a higher BMI is more socially acceptable.


This research study is ongoing, and the above results represent only preliminary findings. However, preliminary results without significance testing suggest that our hypotheses are supported. People who are physically active in SL are also physically active in real life, and people with thinner avatars have lower real life BMIs. Our preliminary research implies no causality in either direction, just an association. Therefore, physically fit people could choose to have thinner and more active avatars because that’s how they exist in real life. Yet, the consistency suggests a pattern that invites further investigation into causal relationships.

Very interesting study! I am all for any research that continues to find connections that motivate people to actively seek health and fitness. I find it extremely interesting that seemingly small and perhaps (once thought) insignificant representations such as the avatar or image one chooses for self, can have a potentially heavy impact on a person psychologically.

Love to hear your thoughts...

ETA: another perspective:
Influence of Avatars and Images: are you affected?

[edit on 9-11-2009 by LadySkadi]

posted on Nov, 8 2009 @ 11:41 PM
Some info. on Avatar use and Mental Health...

In the year since she joined Second Life, where people interact in virtual environments solely through their digital characters, Vanessa admits to doing things she wouldn't normally have done. She grew more social and went out on dates. Her confidence increased and she became flirty with men. On shopping trips, she tried on items that she normally wouldn't wear, but that her more adventurous digital self might. Indeed, the sexier CeNedra became in Second Life, the more confident Vanessa felt in her own skin.

Inadvertently, Vanessa was exploring a provocative question about human behavior that scientists at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) have just started to address: Can a person's avatar influence their personality?

Jeremy Bailenson, the lab's director and assistant professor of communication at Stanford, thinks the answer is yes. His research suggests how you perceive yourself in a virtual environment can subconsciously carry over into the real world. Bailenson has shown that a person's behavior can change offline within minutes of immersion in a virtual environment. How this works is still unclear, but the VHIL researchers are trying to piece together theories of the underlying psychology.

Virtual Therapy

Some clinics already use virtual technology for behavioral therapy and treating phobias and disorders. The Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego, California, uses the same head-mounted displays as the Stanford researchers. The center's therapists build custom virtual environments to treat a range of problems, from fear of flying to anxiety and attention deficit disorder. Other simulations help cancer patients cope with chemotherapy-related side effects; the therapists also use virtual reality to treat returning soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Science Notes 2009

posted on Nov, 9 2009 @ 07:59 AM
Interesting as this study may be, I believe there are some massive generalizations and assumptions applied and it is fortunate that the authors state that the studies are beginning stages only and that much more needs to be looked at.

While I do believe that in certain circumstances, "virtual" therapy, or the use of online tools aimed at certain behavioral issues (some social disorders in children come to mind) may have a place as one of many tools to be used, I believe that simplifying this to "avatar identification" and than generalizing identification to health, and/or traumatic issues such as PTSD in soldiers or victims of abuse, etc. is a huge leap and one that concerns me ... of course, a study does not account for the whole picture, but oversimplification does account for disservice.

I was originally going to tie this into conspiracy theory, but I will leave that for now as I am not clear on whether it ties in, or how it ties in, at the moment...

[edit on 9-11-2009 by LadySkadi]

posted on Nov, 9 2009 @ 08:24 AM
reply to post by LadySkadi

LadySkadi, having never played Second Life before, I cannot speak from that experience.

I can however speak from my online experience over the last twenty years.

Yes, I have been online for twenty years, AOL was $3.50 an hour when I first began talking to people via e-mail, visiting what few websites were available, and as well a few online communities.

I do not know about others, but my avatar is a representation of my spiritual essence, my mental acuity, my knowledge, and experience, I put everything I am into it, for me, and no one else, what others take away from it is their perception.

No matter what weight or my health situation, I have never let my avatar affect my real life, being that my avatar involves war, albeit a fantasy video game where war is a simple joystick control and being fragged where your extra man is just around the corner, or just hit the reset button.

I say this because I am grounded fully in reality, whereas I enjoy fantasy and the online environment just as much as I enjoy certain aspects of reality, both are sometimes highly detrimental towards people in many ways, being that military video games can be seen as an indoctrination process via the Department of Defense and The Pentagon's budget.

Remember the video game America's Army, which was originally built as a test platform for virtual training of soldiers, and then released to the public, within the video game on the computer, you either played a soldier of the United States from your perspective, or you saw other people playing and your perception was that those American citizens were terrorists, and vice versa, they saw themselves as American soldiers and you as terrorists, that being a visual representation of an active avatar within an online based war game.

My weight and or health has always been linked to how much I work or do not work, from two, to three, to four jobs, depending on the strenuous labor intensive, or not, and as well the amount of time I allotted between jobs for swimming, walking, and exercising, so that an avatar affects my particular body is quite ridiculous.

This is of course my opinion, and I look forward to reading other ATS'ers theories.

LadySkadi, keep up the good work, you do great threads, I look forward to them.

[edit on 9-11-2009 by SpartanKingLeonidas]

posted on Nov, 9 2009 @ 12:26 PM
I spent years in a place called Active Worlds. It is something of a leftover from the 90s but the program has been updated so it is still quite an adventure.

In truth, I found my own second life in Active Worlds to be wholly rewarding and at times, a rescue I could not have found anywhere else. I count some of my friends there, some of the best I have.

Reality - per say - is questionable as it is. True, it is certainly dominant but there are cracks in the tiles and escape is not either impossible or unrewarding.

I think that avatars, as they are applied here and at other sites, offer us just a glimpse of what it is to lead a dual existence. They also allow us to define ourselves in this world in a way that words might not.

[edit on 9-11-2009 by redoubt]

[edit on 9-11-2009 by redoubt]

posted on Nov, 9 2009 @ 01:16 PM
I had never heard of Second Life until I read those studies. Interesting concept...
I'm afraid I'm not that involved in online games, virtual realities, etc. I have a hard enough time maintaining balance and keeping on top of all the things I need to do in my "real" life. Don't know how I would possibly manage both.

[edit on 9-11-2009 by LadySkadi]

posted on Nov, 9 2009 @ 01:28 PM

Originally posted by LadySkadi
I had never heard of Second Life until I read those studies. Interesting concept...
I'm afraid I'm not that involved in online games, virtual realities, etc. I have a hard enough time maintaining balance and keeping on top of all the things I need to do in my "real" life. Don't know how I would possibly manage both.

[edit on 9-11-2009 by LadySkadi]

LadySkadi, each person is different, some can multitask and some cannot.

I can multitask, I watch television and sit in chatroom's, etc.

It all depends on your individual abilities and priorities.

posted on Nov, 9 2009 @ 03:40 PM
reply to post by SpartanKingLeonidas

From a recreational standpoint, your point makes a lot of sense.

From a therapeutic standpoint, multi-tasking dilutes the purpose of focusing on and working through particular issues. Individual/personal relevance is critical (as you point out) and the focus of these studies are being generalized to therapy strategies, hence some of my hesitation (and concern). When it comes to therapy strategies, I think it critical to have caution in promoting and implementation of some of the ideas regarding the use of virtual reality in a therapeutic environment.

If it turns out the relating to an avatar helps motivate someone to lose weight or improve self-esteem, than fantastic! I see no harm in that association. It's similar to surrounding oneself with inspiring pictures and setting goals and actively working to achieve said goals.

However, it's the generalization to the benefit of using virtual reality in treatment of certain phobias, traumatic issues, disorders, medical issues, etc. and the use of online environments to confront these issues, that I am very cautious of... I think it premature to make these generalizations...

[edit on 9-11-2009 by LadySkadi]

posted on Nov, 10 2009 @ 07:24 AM
LadySkadi, I agree with your assessment, I am replying via my own experiences.

Not having to do with therapy in any way in regards to my original reply, I can see that utilizing an avatar for therapeutic purposes with positive and motivational imagery would be a self-reinforcing usage towards people who need the therapy for whatever purposes, whether it be weight loss, self-esteem issues, and or medical recovery (IE : burn victims, victims of rape and molestation).

Yes, multitasking can dilute the focus in regards to therapy, strong factors needing direct focus like a test or building a resume, things that take extreme focus like driving would not be good for multitasking.

Having worked in a hospital dealing with psyche patients as a Security Officer and in a psyche facility as a Tech, I agree as well with your assessments, direct focus is important and the reinforcing measures of using an avatar would be very good for people who need or wish the extra motivation and positive reinforcement.

As always, your thread, and replies are well thought out, and shows the care you take in placing what you do online in an online community.

[edit on 10-11-2009 by SpartanKingLeonidas]

posted on Nov, 10 2009 @ 01:12 PM
reply to post by SpartanKingLeonidas

*off topic*

I wonder how much online participation will increase or decrease given the release of the new Call of Duty, today? I love the advert. quotes:

"jaw dropping"
"a phenomenon"

It is rather action packed - I predict very little sleep for many people.
How funny is this: they have multiple big screens set up in the commons in my building with beer and pizza being brought in.
Everything anyone needs for an all-nighter...
I wonder, how many people will call in sick to work tomorrow?
Perhaps it's a good thing most have the day off.
I bet that was planned.

linky link

[edit on 10-11-2009 by LadySkadi]

posted on Nov, 10 2009 @ 05:09 PM
reply to post by LadySkadi

Well, to say it like this, those who play video games like that are rarely the types of people who would actually post on a website like ATS, because the vast majority of those playing those games are not deep thinkers like you and I. There are however a few exceptions, as well as some intelligent people within the COD genre. Whether they need therapy or not is a matter of speculation, conjecture, and outright theorizing.

Hey, it's only really "off-topic" if the topic does not flow that way.

My replies went towards the online community of gaming.

Your original intent was speaking on an online game.

Bring it back to the topic at hand, at any time, it is after all, your thread.


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