Self-presence in Second Life: How having a slim alter-ego online could help you lose weight

[From The Daily Mail]

[Image: Inspiration? Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz said having a fit avatar on a game such as Second Life could help someone to visualise their weight-loss goal]

Imagine yourself thin! How having a slim alter-ego online could help you lose weight

By Daily Mail Reporter
7 November 2012

Fans of virtual reality games are often stereotyped as geeky introverts.

But scientists say having an electronic doppelganger could actually improve a person’s health and appearance.

Harnessing the power of the virtual world could even lead to new forms of obesity treatment, according to the team from the University of Missouri.

In a recent study they found that people who most strongly identified with their online persona, or avatar, the more it could influence their behaviour in real life.

‘The creation of an avatar allows an individual to try on a new appearance and persona, with little risk or effort,’ research leader Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, said.

‘That alter-ego can then have a positive influence on a person’s life. For example, people seeking to lose weight could create fitter avatars to help visualize themselves as slimmer and healthier.’

In the study, 279 users of a virtual reality community, Second Life, answered a questionnaire about their engagement with their avatar and relationships they developed online, as well as their offline health, appearance and emotional well-being.

Self-presence, or the degree to which users experienced their avatars as an extension of themselves, was found to predict the influence of the avatar on people’s physical reality.

A strong sense of self-presence in the social virtual world positively promoted health and well-being of study participants.

People with high degrees of self-presence in the cyber world reported that their experience with their avatar improved how they felt about themselves offline. Self-presence also correlated to greater satisfaction with online relationships.

‘This study found no evidence of negative effects of a high degree of self-presence in the virtual world on study participants; however, that doesn’t rule out the possibility,’ said Behm-Morowitz.

‘Users should practice moderation. Virtual entertainment, like other forms of diversion such as books or television, can be used in unhealthy ways.’

Further research by Behm-Morawitz on virtual worlds will look at how avatars may be used to encourage tolerance of diversity. A person’s race, gender or ethnicity can be altered in the virtual reality world and they can be put into simulated situations where they suffer prejudice and discrimination.

Avatars can create the modern version of the book Black Like Me, in which the Caucasian author darkened his skin to experience life as an African-American in the Deep South of the 1950s.

‘I am also interested in studying how using an avatar with a different race or ethnicity may increase empathy and decrease prejudice,’ said Behm-Morawitz.

‘This may occur through the process of identification with an avatar that is different from oneself, or through a virtual simulation that allows individuals to experience discrimination as a member of a non-dominant group might experience it.’

The study was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

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