Are Your Virtual Friends Real? Does it Matter?

Research reveals the very real influence of the imaginary.

Posted Dec 08, 2019

As much as we enjoy visually appealing avatars, or are entertained by following the exploits of brave superheroes, we know the difference between fact and fiction. We can tell the difference between a real person and an imaginary character. Right? Not always. Apparently, when it comes to forging “relationships,” we are susceptible to mixing facts with fantasy.

Image by Stefanie Reichel from Pixabay
Source: Image by Stefanie Reichel from Pixabay

Fictional Friends

People who represent themselves online with an avatar instead of a 20-year-old photo are still seeking to promote an image that is more aspirational than accurate. Yet in many cases, avatars express actual user characteristics, as I address in a prior post.[i] How do you select an avatar? If you select a representation that embodies character traits you believe you have or wish you had, you are in good company. And regarding identification, in person, where you (hopefully) introduce yourself with your real name, virtual profiles often use of screen names or pseudonyms. Think all this through carefully, because according to research, apparently, your selections matter.

For those seeking friendship, in a study aptly entitled “What Does My Avatar Say About Me?” (2015),[ii] researchers Katrina Fong and Raymond A. Mar demonstrated the social consequences of strategic avatar selection. For example, they recognized prior research indicating the attractiveness of a charming facial expression, and found that consistent with this research, avatars with accessories that blocked the face, such as sunglasses and hats, were perceived as having lower friendship intentions.  

Think about what this means—that others can be influenced by the supposed intentions of the imaginary character you choose to represent you online. The message here is to choose carefully.  

Influenced by Avatars, Not Individuals

Apparently, avatars are not only visually pleasing, but persuasive.  In a study that examined online shopping, Jang Ho Moon et al. in an article aptly named “Keep the Social in Social Media” (2013) demonstrated how interaction via avatar in a virtual store enhanced social presence, increased shopping enjoyment and attitude toward the brand, and even increased the intention to make a purchase.[iii]  

Specifically, they examined online interaction of a shopper with avatars representing a salesperson, as well as a peer consumer. They suggest their findings indicate that virtual marketers should create a socially engaging online environment for shoppers, and focus on “fostering a strong sense of social presence via social interaction among avatars.”

Regarding the findings as they relate to the presence of the virtual peer consumer, Moon et al. recognize the social value of shopping in the presence of others. Citing previous research, they note that even the mere presence of other people (especially peer consumers) enhances the shopping experience.  

Other researchers have found that apparently, fictional characters not only attract and persuade, they also inspire and empower. 

Superheroes as Role Models

We encourage our children to spend time with trusted mentors and advisors. Do such inspirational figures need to be real? Perhaps not.  

Daryl R. Van Tongeren et al. (2018) in an article aptly entitled “Heroic Helping” explored whether superheroes promote positive behavior.[iv] In two experiments, they investigated how exposure to superhero images influences prosociality, as well as meaning in life. In their first experiment, they found that participants who were exposed to images of superheroes reported elevated helping intentions, as compared to a control group who were exposed to neutral images. Elevated helping intentions in turn were indirectly linked with an enhanced meaning in life.  

In a second experiment, they found that exposing participants to a superhero poster (i.e., Superman) made them more likely to assist an experimenter perform a tedious task, as compared to participants who were exposed to a bicycle poster. In this experiment, there was no link found to meaning in life.  

Taken together, these experiments demonstrated that exposure to heroes benefit people interpersonally as well as intrapersonally. Regarding the fact that their research involved fictional superheroes as opposed to real people, Van Tongeren et al. explain that prior research describes superheroes as characters that “embody aspirational lives that are fictional and unattainable,” and they suggest accordingly that such characters may be viewed as motivational as “exemplars of prosocial and meaningful lives.”

The Real Story

Apparently, we are influenced by social interaction of any type, even with fictional characters. Sure, online platforms allow rich interaction both personally and professionally, and superhero stories are always entertaining. Satisfying, healthy relationships, however, involve adequate offline interaction as well—with real fans and followers, we call them friends and family.



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

[iii]Jang Ho Moon, Eunice Kim, Sejung Marina Choi, and Yongjun Sung, ”Keep the Social in Social Media: The Role of Social Interaction in Avatar-Based Virtual Shopping,” Journal of Interactive Advertising 13, no. 1, 2013, 14-26.

[iv]Van Tongeren, Daryl R, Rachel Hibbard, Megan Edwards, Evan Johnson, Kirstin Diepholz, Hanna Newbound, Andrew Shay, Russell Houpt, Athena Cairo, and Jeffrey D Green. "Heroic Helping: The Effects of Priming Superhero Images on Prosociality." Frontiers in Psychology 9, 2243, 2018, 1-7.