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 weeworld.com. 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.