From anorexia to moral dilemmas: how avatars help us study human psychology


In the first part of the movie Avatar we met Jake Sully who, immersed in the world of Pandora, had the opportunity to walk again. Outside of cinema, the current use of the word “avatar” is related to the representations of themselves that users use on the Internet or that they build to form part of the virtual worlds in which they participate.

These systems allow users to experience visual, sound and even kinesthetic projections from computer-designed three-dimensional representations that give them the perception of reality. In addition, being immersive, they offer a psychological experience in which the main sensation is that of getting lost in the digital world, closing the door to all external signals and stimuli.

The design of the avatars has advanced so that they have a greater complexity. The most recent systems offer a fairly intuitive and natural interface that can record, for example, the users’ limbs to transfer those movements to a virtual skeleton.

This often produces an illusory feeling of experiencing the avatar’s body as one’s own, known as the “exchange illusion” or “body ownership.” Due to brain plasticity we can experience the perceptual illusion of having body parts or even a complete body that is not ours represented in the avatar.

To enhance the sense of reality, behavioral realism is used: the way in which virtual human beings and other objects behave the same as their counterparts in the physical world. Thus, Jake could observe the trees and animals of the world of Pandora and relate them to those he knew in his reality. In addition, he believed that he was controlled by his virtual representation and, therefore, he could fall in love and live in that world naturally and his presence (sensation of being and acting) was experienced as if it were real.

Avatars against anorexia

These tools have promoted the development of several lines of research in psychology. Thus, its use in psychological treatments for anxiety or phobias is possible. Psychotherapists can use different exposure settings for patients according to their treatment needs, adapt them to their specific case and repeat these scenarios as many times as necessary.

In eating disorders they allow –accompanied by psychotherapeutic treatment sessions– to address the distortion of the body image with virtual reality systems based on the illusion of exchange or ownership of the body.

These means also allow experimental manipulations impossible in the real world such as changing the skin color and designing the avatar with a physical resemblance to the real user.

Adjust behavior to expectations

In the Human and Virtual Interaction Laboratory at Stanford University, they have spent decades studying the physical characteristics of avatars and their influence on people. For example, the physical attractiveness of the avatar can make it more trustworthy and help a person lose weight by eating healthier or exercising more.

Another example is that they can help promote money-saving behaviors when they see an avatar designed in their image in the future. Also, it allows to promote the development of positive attitudes in people, such as the conservation of the environment.

These changes, which are caused by an avatar with specific characteristics, are explained by the Proteus effect: when the features of an avatar are associated with certain stereotypes or are based on previous experience. Thus, users behave in the way that others would expect their avatar to behave. That is, the behavior conforms to the expectations and stereotypes of the avatar’s identity.

For example, in a study on the effects of the musculature of avatars on physical performance and perceived exertion, those participants who used more muscular avatars had less perceived physical exertion in a real strength task. One of the explanations for this effect is the theory of self-perception, since users evaluate themselves from the perspective of a third person and infer the behavior of their avatar according to the most common expectations .

The dilemma of the train through an avatar

A difficult subject to investigate in its natural context is moral conduct. There is a group of research dedicated to studying the representation of moral dilemmas in virtual environments in which simulated stories are used that pose situations where there is a conflict of values ​​and in which it is necessary for the participant to make a decision (for example, the classic dilemma of the train or the tram ).

The results of these studies not only allow for the explanation of moral behavior but can also contribute to the training of artificial intelligence systems in ethical decision making.

Author Bio: Vanessa Perez Torres is Professor of the area of ​​Social Psychology at Rey Juan Carlos University