A study of people’s reactions to avatars has supposedly shown that androgynous avatars are trusted less than ones that are clearly either male or female.
The two researchers, Kristine Nowak and Christian Rauh of the University of Connecticut, said it also seems that people typically extend this impression to the person behind the avatar. And from this they conclude, that “avatar design and behaviour may have a range of unforeseen psychological influences and that such virtual personas need to be carefully designed to make the right impression.”
…They then assigned these characters randomly to a group of volunteers and got them to chat in pairs via a computer. Each volunteer could see their partner’s avatar but not their own.
They were asked to chat for 20 minutes and then rate their partners on how credible, or trustworthy, and also how androgynous they seemed.
The people represented by more androgynous avatars seemed less trustworthy to people, according to the new study, which will appear in a forthcoming edition of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
Curiously, the ketchup bottle character came second from last when rated on trustworthiness. Last was an avatar based on an intimidating lizard.
Thank god the androgynous avatar didn’t come in after the ketchup bottle!!
The researchers also had a different group of people simply look at each avatars and make snap judgments of how credible and how androgynous they seemed.
Together, the experiments suggest that people make quick judgments about avatars that strongly influence their impression of the person controlling it. Androgyny makes an avatar appear less human, and in turn, less credible, the researchers argue.
“In online interactions, your uncertainty is very high,” Nowak says. “You’re really searching for anything – the screen name, the avatar’s appearance, or how long it takes to respond to message – to reduce that uncertainty.”
“So many of our cultural rules stem from gender,” says Judith Donath of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the study. “If someone says ‘That’s so sweet’, was it sisterly or patronising?”
Perception of gender can help resolve such uncertainty, Donath says, and is therefore important part of online interactions.
Now, I more or less agree with the idea that uncertainty about who you’re dealing with on the Net can be troubling and people grasp at whatever bit of information they can to try to fill in the gaps. What seems odd to me, among other things, is that androgyny would be equated with “less human” and that it would be a consistent factor leading to distrust, rather than just an individual quirk.
When you move beyond the Web, androgyny becomes pretty da*n attractive. To give just a few examples:
Maybe the difference is that in the case of celebs, people feel certain about the individuals’ gender, and also believe the publicists’ hype and think they actually know the person?
On the other hand, sexual attraction doesn’t necessarily correlate with trustworthiness, does it?
[edited 7/9/07 17:11 p.m. and 5:46 p.m.]