Brain and Body

Study Finds Our Virtual Alter-Egos Could Help Us Make Better Life Choices

November 9, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Virtual reality headset
Photo credit: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Our virtual selves may be our better halves.

The New Year is slowly approaching, and we all know what that means. Come January 1st, gym memberships will skyrocket, and we’ll all be resolving to replace our cheeseburger and fries routine with salmon and kale. At least that’s what we’d like to think… Usually after about a month or so, we fall right back into our old ways. But a new study at Penn State University found that customizing a virtual avatar can boost real-world health and exercise habits.

The researchers found that those who customized their avatars to match their real-life gender were more likely to end up making better health and exercise decisions than those who created an avatar of the opposite sex. This held true for both participants who already made health-conscious choices as well as those who didn’t. Thus, for a virtual self to be inspiring in real life, we must truly identify with our avatars.

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"There's an emerging body of research that suggests that avatars in virtual environments are an effective way to encourage people to be more healthy," T. Franklin Waddell, a doctoral candidate in mass communications at Penn State, said in a press release. Even further than this study’s exploration into how virtual selves can impact health decisions, another study found that virtual reality can even help women with eating disorders.

Researchers from Italy and the Netherlands joined forces to study the effects of virtual reality “body-swapping.” The women participating in the study were shown images of themselves in virtual reality bodies, which encouraged them to estimate their body sizes more accurately than their estimates of various body part sizes before seeing the virtual body.

“Allocentric” memory is people’s way of thinking about the environment as well as their own spatial orientation in it, and the researchers think virtual reality body-swapping could transform a person’s “allocentric memory” of the body. Those who suffer from eating disorders likely overestimate their body size, but stepping outside of their bodies to see things in a virtual perspective could help weaken their overly-critical self views.  

"This research provides a valuable first step in understanding of body image distortion and disturbance in those with eating disorders and obesity," Editor-in-Chief Brenda K. Wiederhold of the Virtual Reality Medical Institute in Brussels, Belgium, said in a press release. "Exploring the potential of this Virtual Reality approach in a clinical population will be an important next step."

So virtual selves could inspire us to make better health and exercise decisions, and can even lead to more positive self-reflections. “Our other research has shown that customizing avatars can make users feel more agentic and take charge of their welfare,” S.Shyam Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State, said in a press release. “This agentic feeling transfers over to our offline motivations and actions.”

The researchers from both studies hope that their findings will be translated into future therapeutic approaches. They envision virtual reality being used for online health counseling and even as a mix of traditional and virtual reality therapies, a strategy which already exist today.

Many people jump to the conclusion that technology is all bad — addictive, anxiety-inducing, narcissistic, the list goes on. But increasingly, scientists are showing that it can also contribute positively to our psychological well-beings. Who would’ve thought that a “virtual self” could turn out to be such an inspiration to our real self?

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