Reflecting and Shaping the Self through Avatars: The Relationship between Avatars, Identity, and Personal Needs
Fong, Katrina Ashley
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Individuals frequently engage with virtual environments through the use of characters that represent the self, known as avatars. This dissertation focuses on two primary research questions: (1) how do avatars reflect identity and, (2) how does engaging with an avatar shape the self, in terms of personal needs and self-perceptions? We examine the bidirectional relationship between avatars and their users across four studies. Study 1 examines whether customized avatars can accurately communicate the personalities of their creators to others. Expanding on the theme of reflecting identity, Study 2 explores whether avatar preferences are related to individuals personal psychological needs, specifically the needs for warmth and competence. The results of Studies 1 and 2 indicate that avatars can accurately reflect identity in terms of both personality and psychological needs. However, individuals can also be motivated to use avatars in a way that deviates from ones actual identity, such as avatars that reflect ones ideal self. Study 3 examined whether creating an avatar provides individuals with the opportunity to self-enhance in response to psychological threat. Specifically, we investigated whether there is a tendency to create more idealized avatars following psychological threat and whether this can help mitigate the negative effects of threat on mood and self-concept. The results did not support these ideas, however, with avatar creation seeming to exacerbate rather than improve the negative outcomes of experiencing a psychological threat. That said, it is possible that actively controlling an avatar is an important prerequisite for avatars to have a positive influence on self-perceptions. In Study 4, participants were asked to create either an avatar that reflected their actual self or their ideal self; they were subsequently assigned to either watch or control this avatar. Controlling an avatar, regardless of type, was related to improvements in self-concept (e.g., self-liking), but did not any reduction in discrepancy between the actual self and ideal self. We discuss the results of these studies with a focus on how they might inform future work and their possible application in the real-world, including interactive social interventions.