A Canadian study finds that avatars offer accurate information about their creators’ personalities

Just how much do you know about the people you communicate with digitally? If they have avatars, chances are you know more about them than you might if you met them face-to-face.

A recent study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin sought to understand the assumptions people make about personality based on avatars in the online world. Led by Katrina Fong of York University in Ontario, Canada, the researchers specifically looked at what personality traits are conveyed by a user's avatar.

In gaming, social media, and all-things-digital, avatars are user-created representations of their identity.

Study participants created customized avatars and completed personality questionnaires. A different set of participants viewed and rated the avatars based on five major personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

The analysis indicates that people who are more agreeable and have a personality that is more typical of the general population tend to create avatars that invite friendships.

Avatars with open eyes, a smile, an oval face, brown hair, and/or a sweater were more likely to be judged as friendly. Avatars with a neutral expression, black hair, short hair, or that covered parts of their head with hats or sunglasses, were less likely to be viewed as friendly.

The study shows that avatars can offer accurate information about the creator's personality – even if the creator selects an avatar of a different gender or race. Individuals high in agreeableness tend to create an avatar that others want to befriend, which is not unlike the real world. If you are looking to make friends online, creating a smiling avatar with open eyes appears to be your best bet.

The avatars in Fong’s study are fairly basic. Thus, the findings might not extend to more complex and dynamic avatars, like those found in three-dimensional digital worlds.

This research confirms what many of us already suspected. Even when anonymous – or perhaps especially when anonymous – the people we meet online may know more about us than those we meet in real life. Whether encouraging or cautionary, this study begs the question: are we ever truly anonymous?

Personal Sharing in mHealth Applications

Connecting in an mHealth environment is much more personal than in a video game. One of the most appealing aspects of digital support – aside from convenience – is a level of anonymity.

mHealth applications focusing on behavior change and management (e.g., weight loss or substance abuse) or that serve as virtual support groups may ensure the anonymity of their users to encourage the sharing of personal experiences.

In a recent survey of chronic pain sufferers who use social media to help manage their illnesses, one respondent wished to remain unidentifiable to family and friends, but known to those on the social networking site. Personal sharing was easier with those outside of the respondent’s daily life. This is, perhaps, a level of pseudo-anonymity made possible through Web 2.0.

A is for Anonymity (and Avatar)

Big White Wall, an online mental health platform available in the U.S., the UK, and New Zealand, mandates anonymity because “people shy away from sharing their troubles with friends, family, or healthcare professionals.” The site is managed 24/7, and has very clear House Rules that ensure user anonymity.

In anonymous mHealth sites, users create unique usernames and/or avatars to represent them in their interactions with others. Michael Fergusson, CEO of Ayogo, a global leader in social gaming for behavioral change, believes “avatars… create that personal connection” with a game or site. This connection might be what drives users to apps again and again.

When first selecting a username on Big White Wall, users are instructed to avoid possible identifiers like pet names, childhood nicknames, or usernames from other sites. Users are given an avatar at sign-up, and may manage it as they wish, but are asked not to upload a photograph of themselves.

Jenn Lonzer has a B.A. in English from Cleveland State University and an M.A. in Health Communication from Johns Hopkins University. Passionate about access to care and social justice issues, Jenn writes on global digital health developments, research, and trends. Follow Jenn on Twitter @jnnprater3.