One of the best parts of setting up a new games console these days is choosing your avatar. This is an opportunity to pick yourself an identity and to become anyone you want to be. At the same time it can be a lot of fun seeing what kinds of ridiculous characters you can create or just how lifelike you can make your character.
But maybe you should be taking this process a bit more seriously. According to a recent study (1) published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, our avatars may in fact say more about who we are than we realize – and they might well color our online interactions to a large degree. This not only has implications on the way we should be approaching our avatars but also on the way that we judge and considers others based on their appearances.
In the study 99 participants were asked to create themselves an online avatar using an online tool. The subjects were then split into two groups; where one half were asked to make their avatars look like themselves and the other half were told they could look however they wanted them to.
The tool allowed the participants to select the sex, skin tone, head shape, facial features, hair, accessories, clothing and more of their digital counterparts.
At the same time, the participants were asked to carry out a personality questionnaire based on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism and agreeableness).
A separate group of 209 participants were then asked to look at each avatar and then rate the creator on each of those five personality scales.
Interestingly, the results showed that raters were able to correctly rate the owners’ agreeableness, extroversion and neuroticism simply by looking at the avatars – even when the avatar didn’t resemble the creator at all. What’s also curious though, is that they were less able to accurately discern openness or conscientiousness.
Another result of the study showed that some types of avatar were more likely to make others want to befriend the owners. If you wanted people to befriend your avatar, then according to the study you should give them an oval face and brown hair or a brown sweater.
What’s Going On?
So what exactly is going on? How can someone make assessments about your personality based on an avatar that doesn’t even look like you?
It appears to be down to specific choices – like the size of the eyes – which can denote agreeableness and conscientiousness. The kind of person who would likely choose big eyes for their character, would also possibly be the kind of person who is agreeable and social. Likewise, we might also be more or less likely to be attracted to certain color choices or certain expressions based on our own personalities which could subsequently be used to make judgments about our character. Color psychology is a whole subject of its own and shows how colors can reflect and even trigger many different aspects of our personalities.
Before you go and change your avatar to try and make yourself look more heroic and agreeable though, bear in mind that there are some serious limitations in this study. For starters, the ‘big five’ personality trait theory isn’t one that is unanimously considered useful or accurate. Secondly, the study only had 99 participants which makes it more susceptible to coincidence.
Nevertheless though, this does seem to support the theory that ‘all art is a self-portrait’ – even the creation of a Mii. And this is indeed something you may want to consider next time you’re picking the facial expression of your online character. It might also be an interesting exercise to go back now and look at your own avatars to see what that tells you about your personality and your mental state at the time of making them (my Skyrim character is a Rastafarian cat who appears to be wearing bondage gear… what does that say about me??).
The study can also be seen as a comment on the way that we form opinions on people based on very little information. If someone can estimate that much of your personality from your Avatar, then imagine what they’re thinking when they see you in person at a social gathering. Of course the difference here is that you won’t always be able to change the size of your eyes in real life…
Apparently, one of the biggest clues to a person’s conscientiousness was their sex – with female avatars consistently rated as being more conscientious than males. This again shines some light on the preconceived notions that might color our opinions of people that we haven’t yet actually spoken to.