More Equality Online: Study Reveals People’s Opinions

Researchers in social and media psychology at the University of Cologne have explored digital environments in which people tend to represent themselves in idealized ways. The results show that there is a clear tendency to attribute idealized attributes to one’s avatar, especially with regard to its psychological traits. The study “Self-representation through avatars in digital environment” was published in Current psychology.

The Internet allows people to present their physical and psychological attributes to an extent that does not correspond to reality. A research group led by Professor Kai Kaspar, a psychologist at the University of Cologne, wanted to find out whether people tend to idealize themselves and, if so, in which contexts. For the study, 568 people were randomly assigned to one of six digital environments in an online experiment: online dating, competitive online gaming, cooperative online gaming, social network with friends, social network with strangers, social network with professional contacts.

Participants were asked to provide physical and demographic as well as psychological attributes, once for their actual self-image (i.e. how they actually rated themselves), their ideal self-image (how they would like to be) and for the online avatar (through which they would like to represent themselves virtually). The main question the researchers explored was: do people conceive of their avatar more as they actually are (actual representation) or more as they would like to be (idealized representation)?

Scientists have found that for most internet users, height, body weight, age, and gender correspond between the real self, the idealized self, and the avatar. “We’ve only seen a slight trend across the various environments for people to present their avatars differently than they actually are, or would like to be,” Kaspar said.

In the case of psychological characteristics, on the other hand, there was a clear tendency to attribute idealized attributes to the avatar. Online, people said they were more outgoing, nicer, more conscientious and less neurotic than they actually thought. The researchers observed almost no difference between the six environments. “Idealized self-representation through one’s avatar appears to be a general Internet phenomenon and relates more to psychological traits than to physical ones. It’s exciting because self-advocacy on the internet is becoming more and more important. The strong idealization of neurotic tendencies is particularly striking,” said co-author Zimmermann.

Moreover, with regard to the attributed psychological characteristics, it appeared that the actual differences between people are more important than the differences that could be observed between their avatars. Thus, it appears that most Internet users do not exploit the full range of possible avatar designs. On the contrary, there seems to be an orientation towards social norms, which is why avatars are more similar to each other than to people in real life.


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