Thursday, June 28, 2018

What Does Your Avatar Say About You?

A lot of websites give you the chance to represent yourself with an avatar rather than a picture of yourself.  Avatars are often cartoon-y pictures with facial features, clothing, and accessories that allow you to personalize your picture.  For example, this website allows you to create an avatar to use before entering a chat room.
The avatar you select can influence the way people interact with you.  It is interesting to know whether people generally try to select avatars that represent themselves accurately, or whether they aim to display themselves differently to the electronic world than they appear in real life.  It is also interesting to know the conclusions that viewers draw when seeing someone’s avatar.
This question was addressed in a study by Katrina Fong and Raymond Mar published in the February, 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 
The researchers asked a group of about 100 people to choose avatars for themselves using the (now defunct) website  Half of the participants were asked to create an avatar, and the other half were specifically asked to create an avatar that would represent their personality accurately.  There were no significant differences in the avatars created by these groups suggesting that most people naturally try to represent themselves accurately.  These participants filled out a personality inventory that measures the Big Five personality traits after creating their avatar.  (The Big Five traits are Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism.)
A second group of about 2,000 participants were shown a subset of the avatars and rated their perception of the personality characteristics of the individuals who created those avatars.  They also rated how much they would like to interact with the person who created that avatar. 
One question that the researchers asked up front was whether being able to categorize the participant by gender influenced judgments of personality.  The avatars were all either recognizably male or female.  Overall, people tended to think that the males were slightly less conscientious and open to new experiences than the females.  But, this categorization tended to decrease accuracy of judgments overall, because the sample of male participants was not actually lower in conscientiousness or openness than the sample of female participants.
The researchers compared people’s ratings of their own personality characteristics to those of other people who rated personality after seeing the avatars they constructed.  The ratings of the avatars showed that people could assess another person’s extraversion and agreeableness to some degree, and could not do a particularly good job of rating the other characteristics.
The researchers also examined the aspects of the avatars that were most correlated with people’s personality ratings.  For example, people high in agreeableness tended to select avatars with open eyes more often than those low in agreeableness.  One reason why raters were good at assessing an individual’s agreeableness from their avatar was that they generally rated people as higher in agreeableness (and extraversion) if the avatar had open eyes. 
In general, though, the aspects of avatars that raters thought were most important for judging a person’s personality were not that diagnostic of the personality characteristic.  For example, people tended to rate avatars with short hair as more conscientious than those with long hair.  In fact, this characteristic was more strongly associated with the neuroticism of the person who created the avatar than the conscientiousness of that individual.  People higher in neuroticism tended to have avatars with long hair. 
One final data point of interest, the characteristics of avatars did influence whether people were interested in befriending the person.  In particular, people were most interested in being friends with people who had avatars with open eyes, smiles, and an oval face and were least interested in being friends with people who had a facial expression that was not a smile.
So, what does all of this mean?
There has been a lot of work recently on what we can learn about the personality characteristics of others from the things they create including personal spaces, Facebook pages, and things they write.  Overall, when people create an avatar, it is hard to get to know much about them.  You can get a little information about extraversion and agreeableness, but the correlations are not large. 
One thing that is interesting, though, is that people do draw inferences about personality characteristics from avatars.  However, the aspects of the avatars that they use to make judgments about someone’s personality are not generally that highly correlated with that individual’s actual personality.  Thus, people may overestimate their ability to learn something about others from their avatars. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Why Do Movies Move?

If you spend time watching movies or TV, you have probably know that you see a moving image on the screen, but that the sense of motion is created by your brain from a series of static images.  Typical movies, for example, flash 24 frames per second.  Somehow, the brain takes the changes from one frame to the next and gives you the illusion of fluid movement. 
How does that happen?  Take a moment to try to explain it to yourself.
This question is just one of many that is explored in a great book that came out in 2015 called Flicker by cognitive neuroscientist Jeff Zacks.  The book itself explores a variety of topics ranging from low-level aspects of the way the visual system understands the images on the screen all the way to high-level topics like the reason why movies are so good at creating emotion.
So, why do movies move?
You might think that what is happening is that each image persists a little on the retina (the cells at the back of your eye that respond to light) and that changes in the image are detected there.  Or perhaps, when the image is first processed in the brain, it recognizes small discrepancies from one frame to the next.
Neither of those possibilities is quite right.
The images from the screen enter the eye and hit the retina.  From there, they are passed into the brain and ultimately make their way to the occipital lobe in the back of the brain where most visual processing is done.  Initially, the brain looks for simple visual features in the image like the presence of edges, because edges usually signal the boundaries of objects.
The interesting thing is, the brain divides up the task of understanding the image in multiple ways, with different brain areas searching for different features in the image.  The unified sense of vision we have arises because the brain ultimately puts all of those independent properties back together. 
Early in the processing of images a particular area of the brain called area MT (shown in the figure) looks for blobs that have changed position.  When MT sees a blob in a location that has changed it position a bit, it gives a signal suggesting that there was motion.  Sustained activity of MT indicating motion in a particular direction gives people the experience that an object moved.  This brain area doesn’t really care much about the blobs themselves.  The blobs could actually change shape or color from one frame to the next, it is just looking for motion.
So, the motion in movies comes from activity in the brain area MT.  As Zacks points out, though, this can sometimes cause problems.  In particular, when a movie is put together, it is usually constructed from a set of scenes that are spliced (or cut) together.  If the editor is not careful, when one scene is cut to the next, some of the objects may appear to jump from one location on the screen to another.  This jarring sense of movement is called a jump cut.  Filmmakers try not to create these jump cuts, and texts on film making give suggestions for how to avoid them. 
These jump cuts are caused by the same process that causes the sense of motion in scenes.  When one scene is cut to another, if area MT detects the motion of a blob, it will send a signal that an object in one location actually moved to another.  That can feel weird, because brain areas that calculate the size, color, and shape of the object may not see strong similarities in the objects from one scene to the next, so you can get a feeling of motion without have a clear sense of what moved.
One of the reasons why Flicker is an interesting read is that Zacks explores the ways that movies exploit the structure of the brain to give us an immersive experience.  If you can pull yourself away from the screen for a few hours, it is well-worth the time to check it out.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Effects of Synchrony on Conformity

Teams tend to do things together.  Soldiers march in step.  Athletic teams do stretches and simple drills together as a unit.  In public schools, all students repeat phrases together like the Pledge of Allegiance.  At stadiums, fans will chant together and make similar movements.
There is quite a bit of work that suggests that acting in synchrony like this can increase people’s sense of teamwork and conformity.  Why does that happen?  What happens to people watching others acting together?
This question was addressed in a paper by Ping Dong, Xianchi Dai, and Robert Wyer in the January, 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 
In one study, they had a group of participants learn a set of four basic physical exercises.  Some groups performed the exercises all together as they counted off.  Other groups performed the exercises at their own pace, so that everyone was doing something different.  In addition to these actors, there were also observers.  Some participants watched the exercise being done.  They watched either a group moving in synchrony or a group in which there was no synchrony.  After observing, actors rated how free they felt, and observes rated how free the actors were. 
As a measure of conformity, after performing or observing the exercise, participants read reviews about products from a number of different categories (like sofas).  The reviews included information about how popular a particular brand was.  After reading descriptions of three products for each category, participants chose one.  The measure of conformity was the overall popularity of the products participants chose.  The more popular the brands, the more that these participants were conforming with others.  
In this initial study, participants who performed the exercises with others in synchrony tended to select more popular products than those who performed the exercises without synchronizing their movements with others.  Interestingly, the observers showed the opposite pattern.  They were more likely to select popular products when they observed groups who moved at their own pace rather than those who acted together in synchrony. 
Why did this happen?  The observers rated that the actors were significantly less free when they acted in synchrony with others than when they did what they wanted to.  Interestingly, the actors who performed the exercises did not differ in how free they felt regardless of whether they were instructed to act in synchrony or not. 
This suggests that actors feel a common bond with people when they act in synchrony.  The shared goal and the shared movement create a sense of wanting to agree with the actions of others.  In contrast, the observers focused on the individual freedom of the people.  When they watched people moving together, they were concerned about freedom, and so they resisted picking products that other people liked.
In several other studies, the researchers expanded on this point.  In one study, for example, the actors who were told to move in synchrony were told that they were part of a competition in which they would win a prize if their team moved together most effectively.  The group of actors that moved independently was not given these instructions.  The observers were told that they were judging the synchrony of the team they were watching for a competition.  Some of the observers were told that if their team won, they would share in the winnings, so that the observer became part of the common goal of the team.
Finally, at the end of the study, participants were given an opportunity to donate money to one of six charities.  Three of the charities were well-known and the rest were not well-known.  The amount of money given to well-known charities was the measure of conformity in this study.
Overall, actors who moved in synchrony tended to give more money to well-known charities than the observers who watched them.  However when the observer was also made to feel part of the team, the observer gave more money to well-known charities than to unpopular charities.  As in the previous study, actors who did not move in synchrony did not have a bias to conform: they gave about the same amount of money to popular and unpopular charities. 
Putting these findings together, when a group moves in synchrony, it increases their sense of belonging to a group and increases the willingness of members of that group to conform with others.  Observers have a different experience.  Watching others move in synchrony makes observers sensitive to the loss of freedom of those moving together.  Those observers are actually less wiling to conform as a result of watching the movements. 
In this way, synchronous movements are a double-edged sword.  They increase a sense of belonging in those who are made to feel part of the team, but they actually decrease that sense of belonging to those who see themselves as outsiders.