The power of avatars

Avatars are users’ self-appearance in virtual reality, it is how they look like and how other people see them while they are in the virtual world.

Being in an avatar’s shoes can cause important transformations to our behavior. Some years ago, researchers at Stanford University identified a phenomenon that named Proteus Effect (Yee & Bailenson, 2007).  They found that users’ behavior is affected by the characteristics of the avatar that they represent. In other words, the appearance of the embodied avatar can modify the behavior of the user.

Proteus Effect is believed to occur because individuals associate certain traits of an avatar to specific behavioral stereotypes and expectations. When users believe that others will expect certain behaviors from them because of their avatars’ appearance, they engage in those expected behaviors.

Given the potential of virtual reality to transform behavior, avatar embodiment could be implemented to improve several aspects of individuals and society. For instance, studies related to the Proteus Effect have already found that the appearance of the avatar can contribute to reduce public speaking anxiety (Aymerich-Franch et al., 2014a, 2014b), reduce racial bias (Groom et al, 2009), or promote social behavior (Rosenberg et al., 2013).

Unfortunately, virtual reality is mainy conceived as a gaming tool. Thus, it is important that people find out about the potential positive uses of virtual reality and promote them, as they could greatly benefit society.


Aymerich-Franch, L., Kizilcec, R., & Bailenson, J. (2014a). The Relationship between Virtual Self Similarity and Social Anxiety. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8: 944.

Aymerich-Franch, L. & Bailenson, J. (2014b). The use of doppelgangers in virtual reality to treat public speaking anxiety: a gender comparison. Proceedings of the International Society for Presence Research Annual Conference. March, 17-19, Vienna, Austria.

Aymerich-Franch, L. (2013). La realidad virtual como herramienta de estudio de fenómenos psicológicos y sociales. Orbis, 24.

Groom, V., Bailenson, J. N., & Nass, C. (2009). The influence of racial embodiment on racial bias in immersive virtual environments. Social Influence, 4(3), 231–248.

Rosenberg, R. S., Baughman, S. L., & Bailenson, J. N. (2013). Virtual Superheroes: Using Superpowers in Virtual Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior. PLoS ONE, 8(1), 1–9.

Yee, N. & Bailenson, J.N. (2007). The Proteus Effect: Self transformations in virtual reality. Human Communication Research, 33 (3), 271-290.


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