When David Bowie sang about Modern Love, did he realize how much in the future it would involve computers? Bowie, like the rest of us in the 1980s, might have seen our modern digitally-assisted relationships as weird science. But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.
To watch Bowie's 1980s Modern Love video , click here.
Coming out in Second Life
Though we often hear about deception in virtual relationships, virtual space can also give us a safe environment in which to present our authentic romantic selves. For example, disclosing to friends, family and the community that you are homosexual can obviously feel very risky and stressful. Media psychologist Jon Cabiria wondered whether coming out in a virtual community would offer a transition to coming out beyond the virtual world. It did. Those who came out in Second Life were more likely than those who didn't to come out in their real lives(1).
How can your avatar's relationships help you in real life? Well, one answer is that behind every avatar is a real person. And that lends a social reality to online interactions. At the same time, the avatar provides a safety net. While you are telling real secrets to real people, you manage to protect yourself from many of the risks that may have stopped you from disclosure in the first place.
Me and my Avatar
Jeremy Bailenson and his colleagues at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University (http://vhil.stanford.edu/) study the social psychology of avatars. They discovered that when people control avatars they mimic certain real world social behaviors and characteristics(2). For example, if your avatar is attractive, you will unconsciously manipulate that avatar to behave like an attractive person. In one study, those manipulating an attractive avatar stood closer to other avatars and were more personally disclosing than those with less attractive avatars. But the effect of having an attractive avatar did not stop there. Those same people who had attractive avatars later chose more attractive partners to pursue in a virtual dating experience.
In another study(3), men and women were exposed to stereotypical female avatars. Some saw virtual "virgins" - conservatively dressed women who averted their gaze from the participants. Some saw virtual "vamps" - seductively dressed women who gazed into the eyes of the participants. Others saw non-stereotypical avatars - either those who dressed conservatively while gazing deeply or who dressed provocatively while averting their gaze shyly. People who saw the stereotypical "virgin" or "vamp" avatars were more likely than those who saw non-stereotypical avatars to endorse stereotypical beliefs about women. Specifically they endorsed Rape Myths, or ideas suggesting that women deserve rape or provoke it.
These findings tell a fascinating story about people's perceptions of online romantic interactions. They demonstrate that our sense of who we are in relationships is influenced by our virtual interactions. Getting closer, taking chances -- these things can happen online as we extend our social world into cyberspace. And in love as in other facets of our social lives, the distinction between what is real and what is virtual loses importance.
1Cabiria, J. (2008). Virtual world and real world premeability: Transference of positive benefits for marginalized gay and lesbian populations. Virtual Worlds Research, 1, 1-13.
2Yee, N., Bailenson, J. N., Ducheneaut, N. (2009). The Proteus effect: Implications of transformed digital self-representation on online and offline behavior. Communication Research, 36, 285-312.
3Fox, J., & Bailenson, J. N. (2009). Virtual virgins and vamps: The effects of exposure to female characters' sexualized appearance and gaze in an immersive virtual environment, Sex Roles, 61, 147-157.
Dedication: This blog entry is dedicated to Shane Pase, 80s music lover extraordinaire.