The Proteus Effect is one of the most interesting theories to come out of cyber-psychological research in recent years, with its relevance becoming more apparent as we transition into an era where virtual worlds continue to grow in importance.

The theory itself derives its name from the mythical Greek God Proteus, who could adapt his physical form when presenting himself to others (Sellaturay, Nair, Dickinson, Sriprasad, 2012). In the psychology community, the effect itself was originally coined by psychologists from Stanford University, who found that individuals adapted their behaviour based on the virtual avatars that they embodied (Yee & Bailenson, 2007). Individuals who embodied tall avatars were more dominant in negotiation situations than individuals who were assigned to smaller avatars, and participants who were assigned to more attractive avatars showed greater levels of self-disclosure and confidence when talking to strangers of the opposite sex (Yee & Bailenson, 2007). The findings suggest that in virtual worlds, we adapt our behaviours based on characteristics of the avatar that represents us. Interestingly, follow-up research suggests that these changes in behaviour subsequently transfer back into the physical world after time has been spent embodying a virtual character (Rosenburg, Baughman, & Bailenson, 2013). In order to understand this phenomenon, it is important to review what self-presentation really means.

History of the Proteus Effect

The basis for the Proteus Effect can be linked back to the 1950’s and Erving Goffman’s theory of self-presentation (Goffman, 1959). Goffman described how the self was malleable, and how we as individuals will choose to present altered versions of ourselves based on situational factors. While some individuals will alter their presentation of self to a greater degree, usually those who report higher levels of self-monitoring, i.e., the extent to which someone responds to cues from their audience, almost all individuals will tailor their behaviour based on their present environment. Most of these changes are subtle and are often used to accentuate positive aspects of the self, while supressing negative ones (Gardner & Martinko, 1998). The advent of the internet and the virtual worlds that came with it, granted individuals greater control over their self-presentation than had ever been previously possible. Virtual worlds allow individuals experiment with parts of their identity, whether that be personality, sexuality, or behaviour (Lee, Nass, & Bailenson, 2014). Characteristics of virtual worlds can even allow individuals create better versions of themselves, with editing, asynchronous communication, and physical invisibility assisting users in promoting positive characteristics while hiding their deficiencies (Walther, 1996). In almost all virtual worlds that we engage in, we are assigned to an avatar that represents our existence in the world, whether this be the protagonist in a video game, or an avatar designed to look like us in a virtual team meeting. While in the physical world, we adapt our behaviours based on our environment (Yee & Bailenson, 2007), the Proteus Effect suggests that in virtual worlds we adapt our behaviours to conform with what we perceive our characters social identity to be (Fox, Bailenson, & Tricase, 2013).

Conforming to social identities is not a new thing, as highlighted by Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo, 1971). In this study, participants conformed to the identities of prisoner and prisoner guard to such an extent that the experiment was terminated early due to the physical and mental harm caused to certain participants. In a conceptually similar study, participants who were dressed like Ku Klux Klan members, on average, administered far higher doses of electric shocks to a confederate than participants dressed as nurses (Johnson & Downing, 1979). So, should we be concerned with virtual characters causing us to conform to anti-social behaviours? The obvious concern in relation to the Proteus Effect comes in the form of violent video games, which have always come under fire from certain sections of the media (Kader, 2016; Park, 2014). While research in this area has long rebuffed the notion that violent video games lead to more aggressive behaviour (Ferguson, 2015), studies focusing primarily on the Proteus Effect within video games suggest that certain avatar characteristics leads to more aggressive acts within the game (Eastin, Appiah, and Cicchirllo, 2009; Pena, Hancock, & Merola, 2009). More research is needed to fully understand the Proteus Effect and its relationship with violent video game characters, however it is clear that computer game characters do alter our behaviour in the game. When examining World of Warcraft players, who played under a different gender to their own, users in-game behaviour was more aligned to their virtual gender than their actual gender (Yee, Ducheneaut, Yao, & Nelson, 2011).

Virtual Reality Applications

So where does the Proteus Effect sit when it comes to Virtual Reality? The research suggests that discrepancies between the real self and the virtual character one embodies leads to deindividuation (Yee & Bailenson, 2007), wherein the individual exhibits a freedom in their behaviour that is not constricted by the social norms assigned to them in the physical world. The application of the Proteus Effect in VR can result in positive behaviour adaption. Studies focusing on improving physical and mental health (Behm-Morawitz, 2012; Fox, Bailenson, & Binney, 2009) found success in improving users’ offline behaviours as a result of changes in their virtual characters behaviour. Individuals who embodied a superhero character with the ability to fly within an immersive virtual world, were significantly more inclined to help others immediately following the VR experience than participants who flew a helicopter (Rosenburg, Baughman, & Bailenson, 2013), suggesting that trait characteristics of a superhero transferred from the virtual world back to the physical world. Researchers are now looking at using the Proteus Effect to improve attitudes and behaviours towards climate change by getting users to embody animals and plants under threat from climate change (Ahn, et al., 2016; Markowitz, Laha, Perone, Pea, & Bailenson, 2018). Learning and development in VR can also make positive use of the Proteus Effect. The old adage, “dress for the job you want not for the job you have”, is perhaps most relevant in this regard, as users should look to assume virtual characters that have the trait qualities that they are looking to improve upon. While research is thin in this area, the Proteus Effect is certainly an interesting phenomenon, and one that warrants further research in the world of cyberpsychology.


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