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What your avatar says about you

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The avatar is a staple of online communications.  In the web 1.0 era of discussion forums and the like, it would be normal for users to have an avatar alongside their profile, and these were often crucial in identifying that individual on the community.

As web 2.0 evolved, the role of the avatar did too, whether that was the kind used in massive multi-player games, or indeed the version of ourselves we present to the world on various social networks.

A few years ago I wrote about some research that underlined how important avatars were to how we behaved online.  It found that the design of our avatar would often have a sizable impact upon how challenging we perceived an in-game task to be.

A recent study from academics at York University wanted to delve more into the personalities of our avatars.  Do we choose avatars to reflect who we are, or who we’d like to be, for instance?

“For example, if my perception of someone’s extraversion closely matches their true level of extraversion, without any reference to how this related to average levels of extraversion, this is overall accuracy,” the researchers say. “If I can accurately perceive how much more extraverted than average a person is, that involves distinctive accuracy.”

The study saw participants create their own custom avatars, with a second group then rating the avatars created for things such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (the big five personality traits).

The results suggest that some of these 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.

Alas, those who were somewhat neurotic were much less likely to create an avatar that reflected this side of them (unlike their sociable peers).

What makes an avatar friendly?

The study revealed that avatar characteristics such as open eyes, a smile, an oval face and brown hair were more commonly associated with a friendly character.

By contrast, avatars with black and short hair, a hat or sunglasses, and a non-smiling expression were generally regarded as much less friendly.

Interestingly, avatars created by females were more likely to be regarded as open and conscientious, almost by default, regardless of the actual traits of their creator.

“One possibility is that digital contexts activate different gender stereotypes than in real-world contexts, but more research is necessary to explore this,” the researchers say.

The researchers also caution that their exploration focused on relatively simple avatars, and future studies will have to explore more complex representations.  They do believe however that their work gives us some useful insight into how accurate our avatars are at reflecting our personalities.

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