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Doppelganger-Based Training: “Fake It Till You Make It” 2.0

VR-based "doppelganger avatars" may accelerate learning for certain individuals.

Background information: Merriam-Webster defines doppelgänger as "1. A ghostly counterpart of a living person; 2. A person who closely resembles another living person; 3. The opposite side of a personality: alter ego." Self-efficacy refers to someone's "belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments" (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997) and reflects an individual's "ability to exert control over one's motivation, behavior, and social environment."
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New research from Switzerland explores how using a "doppelganger" avatar as a role model that resembles a trainee during a virtual reality (VR) training session designed to improve public speaking compares to using a "virtual self" that doesn't resemble the trainee's physical appearance. These findings (Kleinlogel et al., 2021) on how imitating one's virtual self can accelerate learning were published on February 10 in the journal PLOS ONE.

For this study, first author Emmanuelle Kleinlogel and her EPFL-UNI/CROSS (Collaborative Research on Science and Society) colleagues created two different public speaking conditions within a virtual reality environment. Their goal was to investigate "the extent to which the use of doppelgangers as role models can boost trainees' interpersonal skills development as compared to a role model that does not resemble the trainees." The researchers also assessed "trainees' level of self-efficacy and gender as potential moderators in this relationship."

Before the advent of VR and CGI, training videos relied solely on human role models played by character actors who performed desired behaviors that trainees could learn to master via "behavioral mimicry." Doppelganger-based virtual reality training advances how role models are used in a digital era by creating a VR-based alter ego that looks like someone's mirror image.

In the first VR environment, each study participant delivered a speech to a virtual audience without any prior training. Before delivering their second speech, each study participant watched a role model giving the same speech "with charisma" to the same audience; this role model was either a "doppelganger avatar" or a "non-doppelganger avatar" of the same gender depending on randomized group assignments. After watching one of these VR training videos, participants delivered the speech again.

"Results went in the expected direction by showing that the use of a doppelganger helped improve performance as compared to the use of a same gender avatar role model," the authors explain. Notably, the group that seemed to benefit most from doppelganger-based training were male trainees who "were relatively low in self-efficacy, as measured following the VR training."

Based on these results, Kleinlogel et al. speculate that individuals who are relatively low in self-efficacy might benefit more from doppelganger-based training than individuals with relatively high levels of self-efficacy.

"We argue that, by watching their virtual self delivering the charismatic speech, participants relatively low in self-efficacy had a greater motivation to put effort into the task and to persevere than those who watched an unknown avatar performing the same charismatic speech," the authors conclude. They also recommend that future research "should further investigate the moderating effect of individual differences such as individual levels of self-efficacy."

Using Mirrors to Imitate Heroes: Doppelganger-Based Training in the Analog Era

For the second part of this post, I'm going to shift gears and filter the latest (2021) research on "doppelganger-based training" through the lens of my quest to become an elite-level athlete that began in 1988 and ended after breaking a Guinness World Record in 2004.

The foundation of my identity construction during adolescence was rooted in creating an alter ego based on role models I admired who helped me overcome low self-efficacy. Like many teenagers, I spent a lot of time alone in my bedroom "dancing like nobody's watching" while singing along to '80s songs such as "Adult Education," in which Hall & Oates sing: "The boys are busy in the mirrors trying to imitate their heroes."

As an insecure gay teen who had a fairly severe "sissy" complex, I learned to "fake it till you make it" by emulating rock star personas while watching my reflection in a mirror and playing their songs (very loudly) on my Walkman. The overlay of my own reflection in the mirror while pretending to be a "rock star" was a 1.0 version of doppelganger-based training that I stumbled on as a way to create a gutsy and bold alter ego back in the analog days. (See, "Using Rock-Star Personas As Identity-Construction Blueprints.")

As I've written about previously, nonconformist superstars who broke the mold (e.g., Billie Jean King, Billy Idol, Madonna, Elton John) were my North Stars. Long before we had YouTube or streaming services, I watched VHS cassettes or MTV music videos of my icons' live performances—and practiced imitating every move—until their body language got into my spine and became part of my muscle memory.

Because MTV launched when I was in high school (1981) and VJs played the same handful of songs in heavy rotation, it was easy to memorize the choreographed moves of the pop stars I idolized. Oftentimes, I'd lock my bedroom door and pretend I was a "video star" while watching myself lip-sync '80s anthems in the mirror with my Walkman blaring.

Usually, during these impromptu "doppelganger training" sessions, I used headphones so nobody would know that I was trying to morph into Billy Idol while replaying "Dancing With Myself" or "Untouchables" again and again. His lyrics "Sweat! Sweat! Sweat! Sweat!" and "It'll be OK/It'll be alright" inspired me to work harder and romanticize the pain during vigorous workouts that felt like suffer-fests.

Like a method actor building an authentic character, I used different props to create an "ideal athletic self" doppelganger. For me, constructing this alter ego in my mind's eye also involved smells (e.g., Coppertone mixed with an '80s powerhouse cologne) and wearable props (e.g., Chuck Yeager aviator sunglasses or a sun-faded Yankees cap à la Joe DiMaggio).

The hodgepodge of character traits I cobbled together into a doppelganger-like persona became an alter ego that I could turn on and off with a few well-conditioned "copy-paste prompts" that made me confident/relaxed and facilitated flow states during my sports training and competitions.

Anecdotally, my life experience suggests that doppelganger training can improve performance even if the doppelganger isn't a VR avatar, but rather a figment of one's imagination. That said, as a man who used to have relatively low self-efficacy, I fit the subpopulation that seems most likely to benefit from doppelganger-based training. As Kleinlogel et al. note: "[0ur] present study reveals that the use of doppelgangers might benefit only a subset of the population, namely male trainees low in self-efficacy."


Emmanuelle P. Kleinlogel, Marion Curdy, João Rodrigues, Carmen Sandi, Marianne Schmid Mast. "Doppelganger-Based Training: Imitating Our Virtual Self to Accelerate Interpersonal Skills Learning." PLOS ONE (First published: February 10, 2021) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0245960

David M. Greenberg, Sandra C. Matz, H. Andrew Schwartz, Kai R. Fricke. "The Self-Congruity Effect of Music." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (First published online: July 02, 2020) DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000293

Katie S. Mehr, Amanda E. Geiser, Katherine L. Milkman, and Angela L. Duckworth. "Copy-Paste Prompts: A New Nudge to Promote Goal Achievement." Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (First published online: May 11, 2020) DOI: 10.1086/708880

Noora J. Ronkainen, Tatiana V. Ryba, Harri Selänne. “She Is Where I’d Want to Be in My Career”: Youth Athletes’ Role Models and Their Implications for Career and Identity Construction." Psychology of Sport and Exercise (First published online: July 04, 2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2019.101562

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