Using a virtual world can help improve your health

According to a study released by the University of Missouri (PDF), having a healthy-looking avatar can be good for our own health and self-esteem.

Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, assistant professor of communication in the University of Missouri’s College of Arts and Science, who lead the study

Dr. Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz surveyed 279  Second Life users to study how their choice of avatars affected their real-world existence. She found that the amount of self presence, or identifying with a virtual representation, predicted the amount of influence an avatar had on a person’s life in the physical world. A strong sense of self-presence improved how they felt about themselves and promoted better health and well-being.

“The creation of an avatar allows an individual to try on a new appearance and persona, with little risk or effort,” Behm-Morawitz, communications professor at the University of Missouri, said in a press release accompanying the report. “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.”

Those in the study who indicated they have a high degree of self-presence within SL indicated that they felt their relationship with their avatar improved how they felt about themselves in the real world. Self-presence also correlated to greater satisfaction with online relationships.

This isn’t the first published study to delve into the possible benefits of Second Life. In June of 2011 Indiana University reported that Second Life could be used to practical ends to achieve real weight-loss, with the results of a 12-week study involving both in-world and real-world meetings being widely reported in the media at the time.

In the Indiana University study, researchers found that, over a period of twelve weeks, people attending weight-loss / fitness programmes within Second Life tended to lose the same amount of weight as those attending equivalent real-world programmes. However, they further discovered that those engaged in the programme through Second Life reported significantly greater gains in behaviours that could help them live healthier and leaner lives – again underlining the strong psychological link people can develop with their online alter-ego.

The University of Missouri’s study – which actually pre-dates the University of Indiana’s study inasmuch as iot place in February / March 2011 – did not involve physical activities, but focused on participants completing an online questionnaire. The 279 respondents involved in the study represented 30 countries, with some 65% residing in the United States. Some 56% of respondents were female and 41% male, with the remaining 3% identifying themselves as transgender, male-to-female. The average age of respondents was 41 years, with an overall age range spread of 18 through 70.

The questionnaire iteself was structured to measure feedback against a number of hypotheses established ahead of the study as a result of factor analysis with five questions being asked of the participants.

Perceived avatar influence on health / appearance and relationship satisfaction (click to enlarge)

The format of the study means that it is somewhat flawed – the data has gathered from what is effectively a single point in time. A more accurate measure of the relationship between our real and online selves requires that study should be carried out over a more extended period, with experiences and the effects of their avatar on their human condition being tracked over multiple points.

Nevertheless, both this study and that of the University of Indiana highlight the very strong physical and psychological link people can develop with their avatar. This caused Dr. Behm-Morawitz’s team to extend the concept of “mirrored worlds” (as proposed by Joe Sanchez in 2009 to describe how ‘worlds complete with social and financial dynamics such as Second Life and World of Warcraft can “seep out”  of cyberspace to both mirror and impact offline life) to encapsulate the idea of “mirrored selves”, in which the investment we make in out avatars can be both reflected back on, and have impact with, our real lives in meaningful ways.

Many involved in Second Life will view the outcome of the study as unsurprising simply because they have an understanding and awareness of the investment they have made in their avatar. Even so, for those interest in the nature of our relationship with out virtual selves and the degree with which one can positively impact the other, it does make interesting reading.

For Dr. Behm-Morawitz, it has revealed that Second Life and virtual worlds are a rich source of behavioural study, and she is already investigating ways in which avatars may be used to encourage tolerance of diversity. “I am also interested in studying how using an avatar with a different race or ethnicity may increase empathy and decrease prejudice,” she said in the press release announcing the study. “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.”

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3 thoughts on “Using a virtual world can help improve your health

  1. This makes sense to me and I take it beyond the appearance of my avatar.

    In the virtual world of roleply I am very much against willingly exposing my avatar to Vampire attacks, maiming and the like. I can’t pretend to understand what is fun for other people, but as someone with real world health challenges I’m very much not wanting to play morbid, depressed, angst-ridden diseased characters.

    It’s unrealistic, but I’ve insisted on my Medieval characters being well-fed, clean, warm, optimistic and having a good self-esteem.


    1. It’s true that many of us imvest of ourselves in our avatars; our views and desires, wants and need all have impact on our virtual selves – but the fascinating element of both of these studies is the degree in which our avatars are “investing” in us; the way in which our emotional and other projections into them and the manner in which we perceive them reflect back and impact our real-world lives in what amount to very positive ways.


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