Use an Avatar Online? Here is What it Says About You

Research reveals avatar qualities that most people want to befriend

Posted Jun 04, 2018

Some social media users are inundated with friend and connection requests.  Others are rarely contacted, despite a robust social media presence.  What makes the difference?  For people not using their real photo, the answer is the appearance of their avatar.

This is good news, because you can choose any avatar you like.  But here is the dilemma: although a good choice can land you more friends and fans than you can count, the wrong choice can contribute to a very lonely virtual existence. Here is how it works.

Online Identity: Image Management

If you are socializing online, one of the first choices you have to make is what type of profile picture to use.  For most people, it depends on what type of relationship they are pursuing.  A person seeking a romantic relationship on a dating site will select a drastically different image than someone boldly sounding off with controversial or unpopular opinions on Twitter. 

Particularly on dating sites, many people use their photograph. From a glamour shot to a mug shot (seriously), we have seen it all.  Usually, however, it will be a (perhaps somewhat dated) attractive representation designed to appeal to viewers.  

Facebook is another site where many users post real photographs, perhaps perceiving their network as more likely to consist of people with whom they feel comfortable sharing their personal lives.  

In today´s world, however, an increasing number of people shy away from using their photograph for privacy reasons.  Some of these people instead use photos of their pets, or photos they have taken of their favorite vacation destination.  

Others wade into the fantasy world of the avatar.  

Virtual Identity: Idealized Self-Image 

From superheroes to the supernatural, users seeking to socialize through a virtual identity choose imaginary but creative self-representation.  The emphasis on self is the most significant part of avatar selection.  You are choosing a character with traits you either perceive as similar to your own, or represent the way you would like to be perceived.

Assuming smart, safe, social media use on respectable platforms, if you are seeking to connect with other users, avatars matter. Research reveals that certain types of avatars are more likely than others to generate interest from other users in getting to know you. 

Avatar Choice: The Allure of Approachability

Avatar choice is particularly relevant when seeking to build online friendships.  In a study aptly entitled “What Does My Avatar Say About Me?” (2015), researchers Fong and Mar demonstrated the social consequences of strategic avatar selection.[i]In seeking to discover how people form impressions of others based on their avatars, they discovered that some traits are easier than others to assess through avatar selection.  

They found that normative and agreeable people created avatars that generated a greater desire for friendship from other people. Regarding specific traits, they found that avatars accurately provided personality information about neuroticism, agreeableness, and extraversion, but not openness or conscientiousness.  They also found that individuals who were more agreeable created avatars with which other people wanted to be friends.

The Most Alluring Avatars Do Not Wear Shades

One of the more interesting findings involved specific avatar characteristics that were found to be most endearing from a friendship perspective.  Shades are cool, right?  Apparently not so much, when it comes to the preferences of people online looking for fellow users to befriend.  

Fong and Mar acknowledged prior research indicating the attractiveness of a charming facial expression.  Consistent with this research, they found that avatars with accessories that blocked the face, such as sunglasses and hats, were perceived as having lower friendship intentions.  

Regarding clothing, there was only one clothing item in their study that was correlated with the intention to form a friendship: a sweater.  Fong and Mar speculated that perhaps the common denominator between the sweater and a friendly facial expression is the perception of warmth.

Many people would not choose an avatar wearing a sweater, to avoid looking older, or like Mister Rogers--for those of you old enough to remember the children´s show.  But they would select a character with sunglasses, probably in an attempt to look “cool.”  Yet that selection, according to Fong and Mar, would not generate as much interest from other users.  

The advice about portraying a charming facial expression, however, is definitely on the mark, particularly in a venue where other users are scanning quickly, as they are when viewing endless screens of online profiles, searching for new “friends” or “connections.” 

Virtual Attraction Imitates Live Interaction

Apparently, even with imaginary representations, we demonstrate a preference for faces that are perceived as both attractive and approachable—which mirrors the way we respond to others in real life.  This research represents yet another way in which we make judgments online much in the same way we do in the real world.     


[i]Katrina Fong and Raymond A. Mar, ”What Does My Avatar Say About me?  Inferring Personalitiy From Avatars,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41, no. 2, 2015, 237-249.