What Do People’s Online Avatars Say About Them?

Photo: Katrina Fong

Online avatars — visual representations of human beings — are everywhere these days. From mainstream examples, like the photos or other images Gmail users use to represent themselves, to extravagant armor-clad monsters in role-playing games, it’s becoming increasingly common for people to go through the process of deciding how they want to be represented in an online space.

But what goes into that decision? What can a given avatar tell us about the person who created it? It’s a hot area of study given the proliferation of interesting online worlds, and a new study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Katrina Fong and Raymond Mar of York University seeks to shed some light on it.

As the researchers explain, to a certain extent people seem to react to encountering a new avatar online in similar ways to how they react to encountering a new person in real life. For example, they write that one study showed that “Tattooed avatars … are perceived as being sensation-seeking and risk-taking,” and these sorts of judgements “extend to the credibility of the avatar’s user.”

These findings, and past research suggesting that people have a natural tendency to make their online avatars reflect who they are as a person, led the researchers to ask a simple question: “[D]o these cues accurately reflect and communicate an individual’s real-world traits?” To test this, they ran a study on a group of Canadian college students.

In Phase 1, some of the students came into a computer lab, where they first took personality inventory tests that measure the so-called “Big Five” characteristics (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), and then created online avatars using the site weeworld.com. (Half the group was explicitly told that their avatars should represent who they are in real life, but the researchers found no significant differences between the avatars created by participants who did or didn’t hear this message.)

In Phase 2, a separate group of students took an online survey in which they “were shown a subset of 15 to 16 of the avatars created in Phase 1,” asked to rate the personality of the avatar’s creator, and asked if they’d want to be friends with him or her. Then the researchers compared the observer-ratings to the results of the personality tests taken by the avatar creators.

What they found was that the avatars provided accurate information about “extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism but not conscientiousness or openness.” In other words, those cues we use to give people hints as to who we are in real life — various subtle decisions pertaining to clothes and hair, for example — seem to translate to the online world, at least when it comes to communicating certain information.

In a way, this points to the limitations of online environments. It would be nice if these environments really took us out of ourselves, if they expanded our horizons, perhaps making us more open to new experiences and more empathetic toward others as a result. But they don’t necessarily do that — a lot of the time, all they do is replicate and reinforce existing offline social dynamics and prejudices. Even when in unfamiliar online settings, we have a tendency to seek out the familiar and the comforting.

A lot of this comes down to context, of course. In some online situations, it might actually be in our interest to give a sense of who we are in real life. In others — say, a game like World of Warcraft — we might try to embody other values or characteristics. If you’re a scrawny, socially awkward 15-year-old in real life, that’s not the persona you’re going to adopt on an epic mission to slay dragons (not that there are characters who look like scrawny 15-year-olds in real life anyway).

Nick Yee unpacks a lot of this stuff really nicely in his book The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us—and How They Don’t (I mentioned the book as one of my favorites of 2014 and interviewed him for the Boston Globe last year.) One of his main points is that many of the people who develop online worlds — even fantastical ones involving the aforementioned dragon-slaying — tend to rely on pretty tired stereotypes and tropes.

These worlds could encourage all sorts of fascinating exploration, but at the moment, many of them aren’t. To a certain extent, we’re squandering a chance to use technology to ask some really important, interesting questions about identity and empathy.