If you’re physically attractive, the world simply treats you better. You’re more trusted. People think you’re competent. You have more freedom to act as you please. The list goes on. This reflects something called the physical attractiveness stereotype – people lacking any other information tend to believe that beautiful people have traits that they (or their culture) find attractive. This is both commonsense and an empirically supported finding. No one will argue – the pretty people have it all (even if they don’t deserve it!).
But what about virtual attractiveness? In an online virtual world, people have complete control over the appearance of their avatars. They can look however they want; I choose a tall man in a snappy black suit with a pretty slick haircut. Do people react to the attractiveness of virtual people the same way they react to real people?
A recent study by Banakou and Chorianopoulos in the fascinating Journal of Virtual Worlds Research (PDF freely available here) examines the effects of both attractiveness and gender in Second Life, the most popular persistent online virtual world. The overall verdict? Yes – and more. Not only does attractiveness change how people treat you, but it also seems to change the way you behave. Attractiveness (and gender) have an effect on the way that virtual interactions occur on both sides. If you’re attractive, you’re not only more likely to be able to strike up a conversation with a virtual stranger but more likely to make the effort in the first place.
The researchers examined this by creating four avatars, crossing gender and attractiveness: attractive male, unattractive male, attractive female, unattractive female. Nine participants (four females and five males) were deceived into believing they were participating in a study on how chat works in virtual environments. Using a within-subjects design, each participant was placed in a location with lots of active users and asked to strike up conversations with strangers, with a total of 205 individual attempted interactions.
Several interesting findings came up:
- More SL users tried to strike up a conversation with the research participants when they were using the attractive avatar.
- Research participants tried to start more conversations when they were using the attractive avatar.
- Of SL users initiating private chats with research participants, 21% chatting with an attractive avatar tried to pursue friendship beyond the single interaction, while roughly 3% tried with an unattractive avatar.
- Female avatars have a slightly higher success rate in general (surprise, surprise).
- Female research participants tended to seek out visibly male SL users more often than visible female SL users when they were in an attractive avatar. The same effect was present when in the unattractive avatar, but the effect was much less pronounced. Male participants tended to talk to visible female SL users regardless of the attractiveness level of their avatar.
Before internalizing these findings, there are several caveats. The most problematic is this: since there were only nine participants, it is quite probable that there are some sample-specific effects going on. Without more data, there’s no way to know precisely what those effects might be, however. The conclusion about female-specific behavior above (#5) is technically based on N=4.
The second is the representation of the construct “attractiveness.” Here are the four avatars themselves:
“Attractiveness” in psychology is a complex concept. Clothing, body shape (silhouette), facial features, symmetry – these are all aspects of attractiveness. It’s hard to say in this study precisely what aspect of attractiveness elicited the effect. Additionally, because default Second Life avatars were used as the “unattractive” option (i.e. an avatar automatically assigned to a person when signing up), there may be other evaluations going on in the minds of the SL folks. Perhaps they see a default avatar and assume this is not a “serious” SL user and thus not worth their time – not an effect of attractiveness at all. But this does not explain differences in study participant behavior.
Regardless, this study creates several provocative questions about virtual interactions and confirms, at the very least, that your virtual appearance changes the way that people interact with you and furthermore, the way you interact with them. This has important implications for virtual worlds research moving forward – assignment of avatars to participants cannot be done casually, as evidence suggests here that it may influence participant (trainee) behavior.Footnotes: