Same-sex virtual avatar can boost healthy behaviour

Same-sex virtual avatar can boost healthy behaviour

Creating an online persona to better resemble its human user may lead to improved health and exercise behaviours, say researchers, including one of Indian-origin.

“This study shows that even individuals who are not normally health-conscious are motivated by customising a same-sex avatar to better take care of their health,” said one of the researchers S. Shyam Sundar from Pennsylvania State University in the US.

The researchers recruited 132 students from a university to customise an avatar in Second Life, a popular virtual reality environment that allows users to customize their avatars in a number of ways.

The participants were then assigned to build either a same-sex avatar, or an opposite sex avatar. Another group of participants could see their own image on a small separate screen as they customised their avatar.

People who customised their avatars to match their offline gender — a task the researchers used to test the similarity of the avatar — were more likely to have better exercise intentions and choose better health behaviours than ones who created an avatar of the opposite sex, according to the researchers.

After customising their avatars, both people who were already health-conscious and those who were less likely to think about health chose healthier intentions, such as selecting coupons for a fitness club rather than coupons for a fast food restaurant, as compensation for customising their avatars.

The act of customising an avatar seems to create a personal connection between people and their virtual alter egos and sticks with them in real life, Sundar explained.

“Perhaps more important, there is the sense of agency we get from being able to shape our online persona. This agentic feeling transfers over to our offline motivations and actions,” he pointed out.

The researchers believe that online health and diet counsellors could one day use this avatar customisation technique to reinforce advice and treatment for their clients.