We behave differently, virtually: Our virtual selves differ psychologically from our real selves

One of the enigmas of online human behaviour is that it seems as if we instinctively believe our virtual selves are somehow removed from our real-world existence. People tend to do things within online realms they would probably do differently physically. This means we need to be aware that our online behaviour differs from the real world to become fully responsible for our virtual selves.

Research into the psychological differences between actual and virtual behaviour is scarce.

But in one ground-breaking study by Michael P. McCreery, S. Kathleen Krach, P.G. Schrader and Randy Boone, Defining the virtual self: Personality, Behaviour, and the Psychology of Embodiment (Elsevier Ltd., 2012), the following conclusion was made:

“Although the existence of a virtual self appears likely, it does not appear to be an equivalent persona, but rather a projection of psychological characteristics (e.g., personality traits) that are necessary to work in conjunction with the content, purpose, constraints, and affordances of the environment in which the avatar [the virtual self] exists. Therefore, it would seem prudent not only to limit how the construct is defined, but also to conclude that the virtual self may differ from environment to environment based on each one’s intended outcomes, goals, and system structures.”

This means we adapt our virtual self psychologically to each of the virtual environments in which we appear, along with other actors (or players) in each virtual environment also adapting in a similar way. We could say that we therefore do act and behave differently online in a psychological sense and that others also act contrarily, depending on each virtual environment.

The research referenced above specifically studied game players and the behaviour of their avatars in the virtual World of Warcraft as it relates to personality domains such as neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

But the conclusion that we act differently across the personality domains studied in each virtual space in which we occupy an avatar (or virtual self), can probably be extended to the general concept of a virtual self.

The implications for the designers and developers of virtual worlds, such as the metaverse is profound, as psychologists should provide guidance for the entire process. (By the way, for many years already, Meta Platforms has invested in the recruitment of top psychologists to advise the company on its development of services).

The World of Warcraft study also concludes that the concept of a virtual self that is different to the real self, has vast implications for virtual spaces.
“The emergence of a virtual self as a psychological component of VE (virtual environment) software has substantial implications for developers, instructional designers, and content experts.

“By examining the relationship between psychological characteristics (e.g: personality traits) and behavioural patterns, design and development efforts can better align an avatar’s attributes with system constraints and affordances to better facilitate social agency, role adoption, and personae integration. These links can be used as guidelines to develop targeted behaviours and skillsets designed to help participants reach intended outcomes.

“For example, developers interested in increasing social agency within an environment might assess how their design choices encourage the transfer of a player’s psychological characteristics onto an avatar in order for participants to experience more than a superficial connection to one another.” In summary, what all this means is that our own personality domains are not transferred directly to our virtual self. Rather, we tend to attach a different set of personality domains to our virtual self. Our real and virtual selves are thus psychologically contrary and are influenced differently within each simulated environment our virtual selves find themselves in.

Source: Michael P. McCreery, S. Kathleen Krach, P.G. Schrader and Randy Boone, Defining the Virtual Self: Personality, Behaviour, and the Psychology of Embodiment, Elsevier Ltd., 2012

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