The Proteus effect is a phenomenon in which an individual’s behaviour changes based on their digital self-representations (Yee & Bailenson, 2007). While the Proteus effect can have an impact on players of World of Warcraft (Stavropoulos et al., 2020), a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, its effect is far greater on individuals who are more immersed in their digital experience. Virtual reality (VR) is excellent at inducing immersive experiences (Bowman & McMahan, 2007) and therefore, the Proteus effect can have a more significant impact on an individual.
Walking a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes
The idiom ‘Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes’ means that before judging someone, one must understand their experiences, perspectives, challenges and motivations. This phrase has many variations but the meaning behind it has never changed. It’s a plea for empathy. It can be difficult to imagine what it’s like to experience life as another person, but by using VR experiences, the Proteus effect can transcend an individual’s experience and perspective into someone else’s. The aforementioned idiom then becomes much easier to achieve through this immersive process.
The Proteus effect and its application in VR has a profound impact on individuals’ empathy. A study was conducted using embodiment in VR to engender the illusion in participants of having a body of a different race (Hasler et al., 2017). This research shows that this technique of embodiment in VR powerfully enhances mimicry. It’s understood that generally, there’s greater preference for members of one’s own racial group compared to that of racial ‘out-group’ members. This ‘in-group’ bias is evident in mimicry behaviours, which are associated with interpersonal sensitivity and empathy.
Previous research has shown that after a short period of embodiment of Caucasian people in Black virtual bodies, their racial bias against Black people diminishes (Peck et al., 2013). This shows that the Proteus effect has a strong impact on individual’s mindset and attitude towards others and induces empathy. This effect can be applied to several different problems in the future and could be used as an effective tool in eradicating racism, sexism, homophobia and many other discriminatory ideologies.
Immersive journalism is an affective form of representing news which not only communicates a deeper understanding of the story, but it gives the user a perspective of a story that makes them feel as though they are at the scene of a story, giving them a greater emotional and physical involvement.
A study by de la Peña et al. (2010) used VR headsets and virtual simulations of specific news stories such as Syrian refugee children and the effect the civil war has had on them. Using a VR headset and a reconstruction of the scene, people could feel as though they were at the scene. Individuals who have been involved in real-life bombings told Peña that the VR experience of being at the scene invokes the same kind of fear as it does in real life, as if you were there (TED, 2015).
Studies have shown that the Proteus effect and the embodiment and priming of creative stereotypes with avatars influences creative ideation (de Rooij et al., 2017). This study found that avatars designed based on creative stereotypes can influence creative ideation but in an unexpected way. The embodiment of an avatar designed to look creative such as an artist did not augment creativity in the participants however the reverse was true and non-creative avatars which were embodied (office worker avatars) actually diminished creative ideation. Interestingly, avatars that looks like the participant leads to more creative ideation than using either the creative or non-creative avatars. Further inspection by de Rooij indicated that self-similarity and embodiment appeared to moderate creative ideation and could be an effective way to support creativity.
Contrary to the previous study, a study by Buisine and Guegan (2019) demonstrated that participants brainstorming with a creative avatar such as an inventor, were significantly more fluent and produced more unique ideas than participants who used non-creative avatars. These results also showed that the participants avatar’s individual identity cues influenced performance only when social identity cues were absent, and the creative avatars only led to higher creative performance when they did not exhibit social identity cues.
It is clear that the Proteus effect can have very real effects on individuals under a range of different scenarios, but it is clear that further research is needed to investigate its effect on creativity and brainstorming. The Proteus effect shows very promising results when it comes to building empathy for people of all different ethnicities and cultures. The use of VR and the proteus effect could assist in creating a new age of compassion for those we don’t personally relate to and perhaps, one day, world peace.
Bowman, D. A., & McMahan, R. P. (2007). Virtual Reality: How Much Immersion Is Enough? Computer, 40(7), 36–43. https://doi.org/10.1109/mc.2007.257
Buisine, S., & Guegan, J. (2019). Proteus vs. social identity effects on virtual brainstorming. Behaviour & Information Technology, 39(5), 594–606. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144929x.2019.1605408
de la Peña, N., Weil, P., Llobera, J., Spanlang, B., Friedman, D., Sanchez-Vives, M. V., & Slater, M. (2010). Immersive Journalism: Immersive Virtual Reality for the First-Person Experience of News. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 19(4), 291–301. https://doi.org/10.1162/pres_a_00005
de Rooij, A., van der Land, S., & van Erp, S. (2017). The Creative Proteus Effect. Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGCHI Conference on Creativity and Cognition. Published. https://doi.org/10.1145/3059454.3078856
Hasler, B. S., Spanlang, B., & Slater, M. (2017). Virtual race transformation reverses racial in-group bias. PLOS ONE, 12(4), e0174965. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0174965
Peck, T. C., Seinfeld, S., Aglioti, S. M., & Slater, M. (2013). Putting yourself in the skin of a black avatar reduces implicit racial bias. Consciousness and Cognition, 22(3), 779–787. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2013.04.016
Stavropoulos, V., Rennie, J., Morcos, M., Gomez, R., & Griffiths, M. D. (2020). Understanding the relationship between the Proteus effect, immersion, and gender among World of Warcraft players: An empirical survey study. Behaviour & Information Technology, 40(8), 821–836. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144929x.2020.1729240
TED. (2015, December 15). The Future of News? Virtual Reality | Nonny de la Peña | TED Talks [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsLz0mRmEG0
Yee, N., & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271–290. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.2007.00299.x