Psychological research in virtual worlds

Nick Yee of Stanford University, with the fourth article in our series of guest features.

Virtual worlds (such as World of Warcraft and Second Life) have received a great deal of media and academic attention recently. While these virtual communities provide us with a new and fascinating area of study, it is also important to understand how these virtual environments provide us with new research tools.

Several lines of research in this area have emphasized the methodological possibilities of this emerging technology. One research paradigm known as Transformed Social Interaction purposefully breaks and alters the rules of social interaction in order to gain insight into communication and interaction processes. In the physical world, two people interacting in the same space necessarily share the same reality. On the other hand, in a virtual environment where users view the shared environment from their own computer terminals or virtual reality goggles, their realities need not be congruent. Thus, for example, I may perceive my avatar (a digital representation of myself) to be short while you perceive my avatar to be tall. These non-congruent reality scenarios open up a range of research questions in stereotype threat, behavioral confirmation, and self-perception theory among other psychological theories.

Virtual environments also allow us to endlessly recreate and customize how we appear. While it is difficult to alter a participant’s height (let alone race or gender) in a lab experiment, virtual environments make it easy to explore what it means to be in a different body. For example, a line of research known as the Proteus Effect has shown that users conform to stereotypes based on their avatar’s appearance. Thus, participants given attractive avatars provided more information about themselves to a confederate stranger than participants given unattractive avatars. In addition to putting participants in someone else’s body, virtual environments also allow participants to watch their avatar (i.e. themselves) do something they never did. The fluidity of our virtual bodies allows us to ask provocative questions related to identity, false memories, and cognitive dissonance.

And finally, virtual environments keep track of a great deal of behavioral data. Everything a user does in an online game can potentially be tracked and accumulated over time with a precision not possible in the physical world. While a great deal of psychology research focuses on individual, dyadic, or small group effects, virtual environments provide the opportunity to study social interaction and communication processes at a community level. For example, could altruism be engineered into a virtual community via non-congruent realities? Furthermore, these virtual environments could also allow experimental manipulations on a scale not previously possible in traditional lab settings.

Further Reading:

Bailenson, J.N., Beall, A.C., Loomis, J., Blascovich, J. & Turk, M. (2004). Transformed Social Interaction: Decoupling Representation from Behavior and Form in Collaborative Virtual Environments. PRESENCE: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 13(4), 428-441.

Yee, N. & Bailenson, J.N. (2007, in press). The Proteus Effect: Self Transformations in Virtual Reality. Human Communication Research.

Ducheneaut, N., Yee, N., Nickell, E. & Moore, R.J. (2006). “Alone Together? Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Games.” In conference proceedings on human factors in computing systems CHI 2006, pp.407-416. April 22-27, Montreal, PQ, Canada.

The Digest needs you. If you’d like to write about your area of psychology research, please get in touch on: christian at

4 thoughts on “Psychological research in virtual worlds”

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