Avatar: Welcome to the World of Smurfs - Women and Psychology Column

In my day job, I’m working toward my doctorate in developmental psychology. Since blogging is brand new to me, I think that’s going to be my day job for a long time. My work, currently, focuses on helping children with autism by using computer programs, especially those with avatars. An avatar isn’t really all that much different than what James Cameron presented in the film of the same name. Okay, so it’s not always a big 10 foot tall smurf wannabe. That’s not necessarily the preference. Of course, in games like World of Warcraft, you can be anything from an elf to a Minotaur, so maybe being big and blue isn’t that bizarre.

The big thing about these avatars is that they’re you. Well, the virtual you. You can go into The Sims or Second Life and be anyone you want. Tired of being short? Your avatar can be taller than Shaq if you want it to be. Same thing about weight, eye color, skin color…etc. You can create the ideal you, the you who has the life you always wanted.

Not that this is as advanced as something from The Matrix. We’re not going to confuse animated 3D pictures for ourselves and our real lives any time soon. That, however, doesn’t stop it from being an influence.

Comparison of a woman and her alter-self in second life.

At Stanford University in 2009, scientists were able to see just how influenced a person can be by their virtual representation. Men and women both watched their virtual selves eat two things---a bowl of carrots and one of chocolate. Obviously, chowing down on chocolate chunked the avatar up but carrots helped with a slim down. Bonus? The avatar doesn’t have to taste them!

Culinary choices aside, it had an interesting effect on the women and men watching. The women stopped eating the chocolate when it was placed beside them in the real world and munched more on the carrots. Men did the opposite and even after seeing their virtual self go all Marlon Brando, kept the chocolate coming.

The virtual world is just reasserting what people have seen before about the real one. That women in a group situation tend to eat less and healthier while men tend to eat a lot more around others. While I support the use of avatars in all sorts of therapy, including the work at my lab, I have to wonder where the virtual self is going to go.

I think programs like Wii Fit, which already use computer selves and electronic coaches, are great. People are getting off the couch, working out, and not even having to spend money in a tough economy on a gym membership. If a program can be created for commercial use from the Stanford study then it might help teach and remind people of good nutrition in a country with a serious obesity and diabetes epidemic.

Avatars have their uses.

But how long can someone stare at the idealized version of themselves without being depressed. World of Warcraft already has a ferocious addiction rate because it’s somehow more comfortable to see yourself as a mystical beast on a quest than as you are in the real community. What can seeing the idealized thin avatar do to a person’s psyche, especially when we already live in a culture where there’s enormous pressure for women to be thin and where women have been socialized to eat like birds in public? It’s hard enough staring at models or actresses on television and in magazines.

Soon one may have to contend with their own slimmed down avatar as a “motivator.” While it may be motivating, I already fear the added pressure such creations as part of diet programs or exercise coaching might cause. I wonder if the world is really ready for the technology that allows for everyone to be “so much cooler online.”

Dr. Jeremy Bailenson of the University of California, Davis, remarked that as one becomes more involved in the second life of their avatar, that they would feel that “more than one of us exist.” We are entering an era where we can live two or more lives, be the less-than-ideal body in the real world or perfection (as we design it) on the computer.

I merely hope that doesn’t lead to unrealistic pressure and expectations or to abandonment of a world that is very real and beautiful for its own merits.

Of course, it could be worse. We could all look like azure cats with long tails...


Image of the N'avi property of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Dune Entertainment, Ingenious Film Partners, and Lightstorm Entertainment.

Image of second life avatar comparison from community.secondlife.com