Virtual appearance can affect employee behavior

As businesses look to cut costs, one technology that they have begun adopting is the use of 3D virtual immersive environments or virtual worlds to hold meetings, trade shows and even conduct training. This is all done with users who log into these environments as avatars. An avatar in a Virtual Immersive Environment is a rendering of a computer user as an interface technique. Instead of moving around a computer interface as a mouse, one moves around as an anthropomorphic figure.

Often business people don’t give the look of their avatar a second thought and, in some cases, avatars are just assigned to an employee with out any chance to customize or change the avatar. However, it turns out that the appearance of an avatar can impact the person behind the avatar in some pretty dramatic ways. Businesses, especially those involved in negotiation, need to think carefully about some recent research released about the impact of avatar appearance on in-world and physical world behaviors.

Research on Avatars
Here are some points from an article titled Promoting motivation with virtual agents and avatars: role of visual presence and appearance by Amy Baylor.

1) An experience as an avatar can change a person’s real life perceptions. In a study conducted by Yee and Bailenson (2006) It was found that negative stereotyping of the elderly was significantly reduced when participants were placed in avatars of old people compared with those participants placed in avatars of young people. Another study revealed that people who’s avatar wore black or dark colors demonstrated negative or anti-social behavior in team situations and in individual writing assignments. (See Research shows avatars can negatively affect users)

2) Watching an avatar that looks like you performing an activity influences you to perform a similar or same activity in the future. In a study, users watched an avatar that looked like them exercising and losing weight in a virtual environment, the result was that those that watched the avatar of themselves subsequently exercised more and ate more healthfully in the real world as compared to a control group. This as reported by Fox and Bailenson (2009).

In similar study, discussed by Baylor (2010), “participants were exposed to an avatar representing themselves running on a treadmill, another avatar running or an avatar representing themselves loitering. Within 24 hours, after the experiment, participants who were exposed to the avatar running that represented themselves exercised significantly more than those in the other conditions.”

As study by Ersner-Hershfield et al. (2008) found that when college-aged students observed their avatar aging in a virtual mirror, they formed a psychological connection to their “future selves” and decided to invest more money in a retirement account as opposed to a control group.

3) People tend to conform to how their avatar appears regardless of how it is perceived by others. In one study by Yee and Bailenson (2007), participants with taller avatars behaved more confidently in a negotiation task than participants with shorter avatars; specifically, they were more willing to make unfair splits in negotiation tasks. In contrast, participants with shorter avatars were more willing to accept unfair offers than those who had taller avatars.

Additionally, in subsequent research, Yee et. al. (2009) found that behavioral changes originating within a virtual environment can transfer to subsequent face-to-face interactions. In the study, participants were placed in an immersive virtual environment and were given either shorter or taller avatars. They then interacted with a human confederate for about 15 min. In addition to causing a behavioral difference within the virtual environment, the authors found that participants given taller avatars negotiated more aggressively in the subsequent face-to-face interactions with the confederate than participants given shorter avatars.

A growing body of evidence is finding that strong behavioral and attitudinal changes occur as the result of being an avatar in a virtual immersive environment. The concept of the “Sense of Self” is a very powerful influence in the environment of virtual worlds.

Business Implications

There are both positive and negative business implications of the above research findings. On the positive side, the fact that 3D virtual immersive environments can be used for effective learning and help promote behavioral change is exciting. The savings in travel costs, the ability to influence a learner and the ability to immerse the learner in a variety of realistic environments is encouraging. The learning industry may be very interested in promoting avatar-mediated instruction as a way of getting more return for the investment in training dollars. Organizations have for decades attempted to influence employee attitudes and beliefs through classroom-based instruction, incentives and policies and procedures. So the attempt to change employee attitudes or beliefs is not new or different. The goal of training in many cases is to influence a learner’s behavior. If a company can influence call center representatives to be happy and helpful, they may be able to increase sales or keep customers happy. Corporations spend millions each year to persuade employees that they need to behave in a certain manner.

On the negative side, subtle changes like the height of an avatar or the fact that an avatar may closely resemble and employee has the potential to cause real ethical problems. If a manager, for example, purposefully makes his avatar larger than his subordinate’s avatar, in an attempt to unduly influence him or her, it could be an ethical problem. Or if, in a virtual meeting with a client, the salesperson, decides that she wants to be taller than the client to “persuade” the client to provide a more favorable deal, then problem could arise as well.

This research points to the fact that organizations need to become more familiar with virtual worlds to avoid ending up on the wrong side of a competitive situation. The more companies dive into virtual worlds now and the more they explore, the better they will be prepared when the bulk of business and commerce is conducted in a virtual environment. Companies that take the time to invest now in finding out the different implications will avoid being taken advantage of when the use of these worlds for business to business transactions become more prevalent.

To learn more about virtual immersive environments for learning, check out this book:'