Last summer I wrote an extensive article on Second Life for Salvo 3 which, among other things, argued that probably the most important aspect of such virtual worlds (or “metaverses”) is the fact that who we are inside them will inevitably influence who we are in real life. According to a new article in TIME, I seem to have been right. Recent research being done by Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has confirmed that one’s appearance and activities within Second Life can have a direct (if only short term) impact on one’s real world attitudes and activities:
Jeremy Bailenson, head of the lab and an assistant professor of communication at Stanford… has found that even 90 seconds spent chatting it up with avatars is enough to elicit behavioral changes offline — at least in the short-term. "When we cloak ourselves in avatars [that is, virtual representations of ourselves], it subtly alters the manner in which we behave," says Bailenson. "It's about self-perception and self-confidence." But researchers are still trying to figure out the psychological mechanisms at work, and which way the effect flows: "Do you consciously wear your power suit to feel confident, or is it that you're in this suit and you're feeling up, but you're unaware of the reason?" says Bailenson.
The article goes on to describe a series of experiments where groups of people were each assigned either an attractive avatar or an ugly one, then allowed to interact with one another in Second Life. As expected, those with more attractive avatars showed more confidence, approached others more closely, and spoke more freely than those with less attractive avatars, quite regardless of their real world appearance. Then, an hour after they had signed off, the participants were told they would be participating in a separate study which required them to choose a potential date out of a group of photos. Once again, those who had recently inhabited an attractive avatar showed greater confidence in their choices than those who had less attractive avatars.
In other experiments, people given taller or shorter avatars were found to display greater or lesser confidence respectively – both in Second Life and after leaving – and people who spent five minutes watching an avatar version of themselves exercising were more likely to exercise in the next 24 hours than those who spent five minutes watching “themselves” lounge around. The article concludes:
"The most stunning part is how subtle the manipulations are and how difficult they are to detect," says Bailenson, "but how much it affects real life later on."
Of course, the effect could potentially work both ways — for good or for bad. "In a therapy setting, we could use these virtual environments to get people to become more confident," says [Lead researcher Nick] Yee. "But they can also be used in advertising and as propaganda."
Yet the most significant conclusion that one ought to draw from such studies goes unmentioned: If even short-term exposure to virtual appearances and activities can have such an impact, how much more of an effect must our long-term virtual choices inevitably hold, for good or ill? If we choose, as so many do, to treat these worlds as a “safe” medium for expressing our darker fantasies, can we really be surprised if our virtual lives begin to spill over into our real ones?