An avatar, for lack of a better explanation, is our incarnation on the Internet — the virtual Halloween costume we wear every day. Whether it’s an animated alter ego in a game or online community, or a two-dimensional Facebook profile picture or Twitter “Twavatar,” your avatar is how the online world sees you.

It’s also how you see yourself.

Researchers are finding out that just as we rearrange our avatars’ features, they can rearrange us.

What we see is who we are

In the book Infinite Reality, Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson, Ph.D., describes research showing that people who were assigned tall avatars could out-negotiate shorter ones, regardless of their actual height. Plus, taller avatars instilled extra confidence in their real-world counterparts for at least 30 minutes after logging off.

“The research on the Proteus Effect — that is, how an avatar’s appearance changes your physical attitude — has shown that these effects can last long after the virtual experience is over,” Bailenson said. Here’s a “Science Nation” report on Bailenson’s work:

Studies also showed that people who watched their avatars work out and rapidly lose weight were positively motivated to exercise up to a day later.

“These effects persisted even though the subject was exposed to her or his avatar for only about 10 minutes,” Bailenson said.

The world through their eyes

At the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, realistic avatars help children and young adults learn important social skills. Most have Asperger’s — a high-functioning form of autism — but the center also works with people who have schizophrenia and brain injuries.

“The avatars are very important,” said Dan Krawczyk, a cognitive neuroscientist. “Unlike a videogame, you really do feel like you’re in a social interaction,” he said.

Children can sit around a virtual campfire; older teens can interview for a job in an office or make new friends at a coffee shop. He added that even though it’s a social environment, it’s very non-threatening; participants feel it’s OK to make mistakes. Krawczyk said it’s wonderful to see the progress, and hear relatives talk about how much their loved ones have changed. “That’s actually the most gratifying thing — the success in someone’s real life,” he said.

Kimberly Knight, who leads the Koinonia Church in Second Life, experienced the power of avatars in several ways.

“I jumped into Second Life pretty quickly and realized that it was not only a good place to explore faith and religion online, but it was a great place for young preachers to practice their preaching skills,” recalled Knight, who earned her Master of Divinity degree from Emory University as a second career. “It greatly impacted my sense of authority and leadership to practice those skills as an avatar preaching and leading a community, and it has played out profoundly in the brick-and-mortar flesh-and-blood life.”

Because Second Life offered only limited physical movements for women, she adopted male mannerisms to be seen in a more church-appropriate and realistic way. “The female animations were all flirty and sexual,” she said. But it turned out she loved her avatar’s hair style. As a matter of fact, she’s started coloring her own hair as well.

Knight said avatars were also a big help to a church member who was gong through a huge life change — a transgender transition.

“Her experience in Second Life was a very positive experience in being addressed as the woman she thought she was on the inside, and being treated that way in a religious community. It had a profound impact on her physical and spiritual well-being,” Knight said.

Avatars may have negative effects as well. While Bailenson was unaware of research into the possible effects of adopting frightening or violent avatars, he pointed to a Cornell study involving Ku Klux Klan robes. “Compared to control conditions, the KKK avatars were more aggressive,” Bailenson said. “But the question of what happens to someone who wears a grotesque monster avatar, often for hours per day, is one that needs answering.”

Terri Thornton, a former reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.

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