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Psychologists find the avatar you pick defines your behavior toward strangers

The avatar that people opt for in the virtual world of video games has a direct effect on how people treat other people in the real world according to research conducted by Gunwoo Yoon and Patrick Vargas from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that was published in the Feb. 10, 2014, edition of the journal Psychological Science.

Vishnu with his 10 avatars (incarnations).
Painting from Jaipur, India; in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Participant volunteers were asked to select a heroic avatar, an avatar villain, or a neutral avatar. The participants played a video game for five minutes. The participants were then asked to give strangers either a chocolate flavored food item or a hot chili flavored food item the participants had previously tasted.

People that played villains opted to give strangers chili laced food twice as often as people that opted to play heroes. Both heroes and neutral avatars selected to give chocolate to strangers more often than chili. The recipients of the chocolate and chili were not aware of the contents of the food items before they ate them.

The behavior was determined to be independent of how much the participants identified with the avatar they had selected. The level of personal involvement in the game was found to be a key to how people treated strangers.

Yoon and Vargas note. "People are prone to be unaware of the influence of their virtual representations on their behavioral responses." The scientists also noted the effect on how people behave with strangers could be elicited by as little as five minutes of video game playing.

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