With work increasingly being conducted by teams whose only contact is through virtual channels, the use of avatars presents an interesting dynamic to the teams working relationship.
There have been a few studies on this issue, with one highlighting the important role our avatars play in channeling our behavior.
“You exert more of your agency through an avatar when you design it yourself,” said S. Shyam Sundar, professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State, who worked with University of Michigan doctoral student Sangseok You.
“Your identity mixes in with the identity of that avatar and, as a result, your visual perception of the virtual environment is colored by the physical resources of your avatar.”
How we choose our avatars
A second study then explored how we go about choosing our avatars, and whether the characteristics of each avatar influence how we perceive its ‘owner’.
The results suggest that some traits are much easier to communicate in an avatar than others. For instance, it suggests that avatars are great at showing extroversion or anxiousness, but openness and conscientiousness much less so.
How avatars affect collaboration
A recent study took this to a practical conclusion and set out to explore how the look of our avatars impacts the way we behave together as a team.
Participants in the study were asked to work together in solving a crime mystery. The clues were mixed up, so that some were available to everyone, whilst others were available only to individual members of the team.
Whilst the publicly available clues pointed to one culprit, when the individual clues were added in, a different answer emerged.
The key, therefore, was to collaborate well with ones team mates. Each team was given 40 minutes to converse with their colleagues using an online platform that only displayed the avatar of each participant.
One group of participants were given all the same avatar, whereas a second group could upload their own image, whilst a third consisted of their own photo along with the photos of what they thought were their team mates.
After the task had been completed, participants were asked how they felt about their team mates.
The results revealed that those in the latter group reported a greater social bond with their colleagues than their peers in the other two groups. These groups also outperformed their peers by around 20 percent.
The researchers suggest that this is because the generic and unique avatars both harm team cohesion. Pictures of individuals for instance, do little to create team bonding, whilst generic images simply underline our distance from a real workplace.
They go on to suggest that this detachment can lead to poor behavior or shirking of duties.
Now, it should be said that the experiment used a rather exaggerated format in order to prove a point. Whilst the participants believed the morphed avatar was a mixture of their face and their colleagues, it was in fact the face of a student who was not participating in the study.
The morphed image however gave the participants the impression that their colleagues were very similar to them, which no doubt helped to create an in-group sense of solidarity.
It would be interesting to see whether the same results emerge when more accurate avatars are used. Maybe that’s something the authors will return to at a later date.