Americans are spending increasing amounts of time hanging around virtual worlds in the forms of cartoon-like avatars that change appearances according to users' wills, fly through floating cities in the clouds and teleport instantly to glowing crystal canyons and starlit desert landscapes.
Simply fun and games divorced from reality, right?
Not necessarily so, say two social psychologists from Northwestern University who conducted the first experimental field studies in the virtual world.
They found that avatars in these elaborate fantasylands responded to social cues to help one another -- and revealed racial biases – in the same ways that people do in the real world.
The study's co-investigators are Northwestern's Paul W. Eastwick, a doctoral student in psychology, and Wendi L. Gardner, associate professor of psychology and member of Northwestern's Center for Technology and Social Behavior.
In both of the classic social psychology experiments used for the study, one avatar tried to influence another to fulfill a request.
The way the door-in-the-face (DITF) experiment works: the experimenter (in this case an avatar) first makes an unreasonably large request to which the responder is expected to say no, followed by a more moderate request.
As expected, the avatars -- similar to people who participated in the same experiment in the real world -- were more likely to comply with the moderate request when it was preceded by the large request than when the moderate request was presented alone. They exhibited a psychological tendency to reciprocate the requester's "concession": the change from a relatively unreasonable request to a more moderate request.
The experiment's moderate request: "Would you teleport to Duda Beach with me and let me take a screenshot of you?" In the DITF condition, that request was preceded by a request of the avatar to have screenshots taken in 50 different locations -- requiring about two hours of teleporting and traveling.
In one of the most striking findings, the effect of the DITF technique was significantly reduced when the requesting avatar was dark-toned. The white avatars in the DITF experiment received about a 20 percent increase in compliance with the moderate request; the increase for the dark-toned avatars was 8 percent.
"For decades, research has shown that the outcome of that reciprocity-inducing technique is affected by how the requester is perceived, whether a person -- or in this case an avatar -- is deemed worthy of impressing," said Gardner.
The finding is consistent with studies in the real world as well as the few in the virtual world that clearly demonstrate that physical characteristics, such as race, gender and physical attractiveness, affect judgment of others.
The study was conducted in There.com, a relatively unstructured online virtual world that brands itself as an online getaway where users can hang out with friends and explore an immense and unusual landscape.
Even in the surreal environment, users, who were unaware that they were part of a psychological study, succumbed to very down-to-earth effects of social influence.
"You would think when you're wandering around this fantasyland, operating outside of the normal laws of time, space and gravity and meeting all types of strange characters, that you might behave differently," Eastwick said. "But people exhibited the same type of behavior -- and the same type of racial bias -- that they show in the real world all the time."
Numerous studies done in the real world show that people are more uncomfortable with minorities and are less likely to help them.
The study also employed a foot-in-the-door (FITD) technique to boost compliance to the moderate request to be teleported to Duda Beach to participate in a screenshot. Opposite of the door-in-the-face technique, an avatar was first asked to comply with a small request (Can I take a screenshot of you?) followed by the moderate request. The psychology behind this technique is that a person who does a small favor for a stranger is likely to see himself or herself as being helpful and be more likely to fulfill the following larger request. In this case, the skin tone of the requesting avatar didn't matter, because the elicited psychological effect is related to how a person views herself, and not others.
In at least one sense, worries may be inflated about virtual world users spending too many hours alone at their computers, cut off from reality.
"This study suggests that interactions among strangers within the virtual world are very similar to interactions between strangers in the real world," Eastwick said.
The study suggests that users in online virtual environments routinely extend their social selves to inhabit their online avatars.
"People are increasing the amount of social interaction that takes place online, whether through participation in virtual worlds or other online communities or even just social networks like Facebook or Twitter," Gardner said. "And all these environments present potentially fertile testing grounds for new psychological theories."
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