Introduction to the Proteus Effect

The effect of the avatar on the user and others around them

Overview — What’s the Proteus Effect?

There are some important phenomena to keep in mind when designing for virtual reality (VR). Though they take place in other mediums, they are particularly strong once inside of VR. One of these phenomena is the Proteus Effect and the associated phenomena that come with it…

The Proteus effect describes a phenomenon in which the behavior of an individual, within virtual worlds, is changed by the characteristics of their avatar.

The Proteus effect gets its name from the Greek god Proteus, who could easily alter his self-representation. Yee and colleagues (e.g., 2007, 2009) argue that virtual avatars provide ordinary people with protean powers, as they are able to instantly and easily change their avatar-based self-representations. Proteus research flips this phenomenon on its head and suggests that those changes in self-representation also change the self (Yee & Bailenson, 2007). That is - a user’s avatar might have a psychological impact on themselves and their surrounding social system. (Sherrick et al, 2014)

Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford VR ran a variety of experiments focused on this subject specifically surrounding the topics of racism, sexism, ageism and other stereotypes. The Proteus Effect is based around the hypothesis that an individual’s behavior conforms to their digital self-representation independent of how others perceive them. The findings suggest a phenomenon where a user’s avatar might have a dramatic effect on their experience with or around others in virtual reality.

See more of Stanford VR’s projects: https://vhil.stanford.edu/projects/

Avatars are a representation of the user

An avatar is a representation of oneself inside of a virtual environment where their physical body cannot actually travel. An idea I mentioned in one of my previous articles was that some people will go through a lot of effort to build the perfect avatar for whatever person or thing they want to be.

Two of my friends from VRChat speak to each other in Rito avatars from The Legend of Zelda

In order for an avatar to be truly immersive it needs to reflect the user’s behaviors in the real world. For example, if the user lifts it’s right hand, then the avatar should as well. It would be quite confusing (and perhaps sickening) for the user if they lifted their right arm and the avatar lifted their left.

This match between real behavior and virtual behavior is essential for providing a sense of realism and presence- and a mis-match in this experience is a sure way to get the user’s stomach contents out into the real world.

Avatars can affect behaviors in VR

Research has shown that the users might not even be aware of the influence of avatars on their subsequent decisions. (Sherrick et al, 2014) Proteus Effect has had effects on things like stereotypical behaviors inside of virtual reality. Other examples that research has uncovered include:

  • People behave more confidently with taller avatars (Yee & Bailenson, 2007; Yee et al., 2009)
  • Individuals may act friendlier if their avatars are more attractive (Messinger et al, 2008; Yee & Bailenson, 2007)
  • Individuals may report more negative and aggressive thoughts if their avatars are dressed in black or in Ku Klux Klan outfits (Peña, Hancock, & Merola, 2009)
  • Individuals may report less aggression if their avatars are males facing females in battle (Eastin, 2006)
  • Participants who wore sexualized avatars internalized the avatar’s appearance and self-objectified, reporting more body-related thoughts than those wearing nonsexualized avatars. (Fox et al., 2013)

This mounting research suggests that people do alter their cognitions and behaviors based on assumptions about the appearance of their avatars. (Sherrick et al, 2014) These findings suggest that even though a user might not realize it, they may fall under the effect of gender and racial stereotypes (among a potentially vast array of many other psychological phenomena) in virtual reality depending on the characteristics of their avatar and the avatars around them.

VHIL’s diversity demos are designed to transport users into unfamiliar and unsettling realms. In one scenario, a user is represented by an African-American female avatar who is being angrily harassed by a white avatar. When the user reflexively lifts his or her arms in self-defense, the hands feature black skin.

There is another body of research that suggests that people create avatars that are like themselves- and that people rate their avatar generally more positively than themselves. Additional research has also looked at the Proteus Effect as it relates to empathy- specifically the empathy people feel towards in-groups and out-groups.

Conclusion —Be mindful of human nature when designing for social VR experiences

Implicit biases exist inside of people regardless of whether they show it or not. These biases and stereotypes can manifest themselves in VR via the phenomenon of the Proteus Effect. It is important to remember that not all of the research done on the Proteus Effect was done explicity in virtual reality- it has been extended everywhere from video games to experiences like Second Life for quite some time. Nonetheless, these findings should still be considered when designing social experiences for VR.

A take-away I’d like the reader to consider is…

If a belief or action can manifest in the real undifferentiated world, then it could also happen in a virtual one.

An important next step in Proteus effects research is identifying the optimal and boundary conditions for these effects — the situations in which Proteus-like effects should be more or less likely, depending on, for example, individual differences or the presentation of avatars. (Sherrick et al, 2014)

I think that the aforementioned research could help find ways to reduce the negative impacts of the Proteus Effect on social virtual experiences.

Sources

Eastin, M. S. (2006). Video game violence and the female game player: Self- and opponent gender effects on presence and aggressive thoughts. Human Communication Research, 32, 351–372. 10.1111/j.1468–2958.2006.00279.x.

Fox, J., Bailenson, J. N., & Tricase, L. (2013). The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The Proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatars. Computers in Human Behavior,29(3), 930–938. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2012.12.027

Messinger, P. R., Ge, X., Stroulia, E., Lyons, K., Smirnov, K., & Bone, M. (2008). On the relationship between my avatar and myself. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 1(2), 1–17.

Peña, J., Hancock, J. T., & Merola, N. A. (2009). The priming effects of avatars in virtual settings. Communication Research, 36(6), 838–856. 10.1177/ 0093650209346802

Sherrick, B., Hoewe, J., & Waddell, T. F. (2014). The role of stereotypical beliefs in gender-based activation of the Proteus effect. Computers in Human Behavior, 38, 17–24. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.05.010

Yee, N., & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271–290. doi:10.1111/j.1468–2958.2007.00299.x