Androgyny=untrustworthy…?

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.

[emphasis mine](Article.)

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.]

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24 Comments

Filed under 08_brynn

24 responses to “Androgyny=untrustworthy…?

  1. filthy

    In bowie we trust.

  2. Brynn

    What–no Bowie?

    How right you are!!

    I fixed that. 🙂

  3. I fixed that.

    Right on. Let the masturbation begin.

  4. Brynn

    I had to add Rachel, too!! I’ll try to stop now. 🙂

    (Guess my type is no longer a mystery!!)

  5. Pingback: I Don't Trust Ketchup, Either | Cosmic Variance

  6. NameChanged

    Trustworthiness=how do I trust myself with this image?

    I think people are put off by androgyny because they are put off by their response to it. If they are unsure of the gender, how can they be sure of their attractions? “OMG, did I want to have virtual sex with a virtual dude? I must be gay!” As people become less worried about attractions and gender roles, androgyny becomes more desirable.

    I think they are projecting their feelings of untrustworthiness. (wow that is a long word, or maybe not even a word)

  7. a little night musing

    When my son was a baby, I found that if he were dressed in clothing that did not clearly indicate gender (e.g. a yellow onesie), people would be very uncomfortable around him until they knew whether he was a boy or a girl. I can recall one fellow in particular, that I let sweat it out for several minutes before I revealed that my son was a son. (I was sure that if I didn’t, the guy was about to peek in the kid’s diaper!) After my revelation the guy said, “I knew that, ’cause he’s so rough and ready!”

    The reason I bring this tale in: I am not convinced that the discomfort is about sexual feelings. Most people literally didn’t know how to act around this baby until they knew its gender. The same would apply at any age, I imagine. How would people feel speaking on the phone to someone whose gender was unknown?

  8. OK, really they’re not crazy, but my parents have a large stuffed toy bunny named Buffy. My mom won it at an Easter event, and through a series of little jokes, the bunny started traveling with them to various family and social events.

    One year while “camping” with friends (in large camper trailers that don’t qualify as camping in my book), they had a little get-together and somehow Buffy, who’d always been called “he” got dressed up in women’s underwear. This is a bright blue, toy rabbit that is maybe 3 feet tall. One of my parents’ friends became so distraught at the idea that a MALE TOY RABBIT was dressed in women’s underwear that from that day forward they’ve been forced to call Buffy “she” whenever that man is around.

    The power of gender perception is far-flung and very deep. I don’t understand the discomfort people feel at the idea of not knowing the gender of a person, much less a toy rabbit. I feel bad for them that they are so enslaved by the structure they need their world to have. And I feel bad for the rabbit, but he’s pretty jolly and I don’t think he (or she) minds too much.

  9. Oh, and forgive my ignorance. Who is in the last photo?

    Thanks!

  10. Bowie is God!
    Or one of ’em.

    Androgyny forever!

  11. Goldfishy — That is the babe-alicious Rachel Maddow, I believe.

  12. I have a Second Life and my favorite avatar is my polar opposite — tall, male, and slim. (I also have a fat female avatar, and a small purple elephant that I inhabit).

    I am always amazed at the different types of conversations and interactions that I have in different avatars. My name is gender neutral.

    My fav avatar is over 7 feet, and I am be-decked in a white halo and wings most of the time (find me if you can).

  13. When my son was a baby, I found that if he were dressed in clothing that did not clearly indicate gender (e.g. a yellow onesie), people would be very uncomfortable around him until they knew whether he was a boy or a girl.

    I always noticed that people always declared my girl a boy when she was gender-neutral — and I have a theory that they did so intentionally, because parents of girls are less upset about gender misidentification than parents of boys.

    I myself have found that most babies are in fact essentially androgynous because they’re babies, and I wouldn’t have cared either way. Still don’t.

    At any rate, I agree with both theories, that this is a pure gender issue and a sexuality issue. We live in a gendered society, and part of gender is sex — they’re inextricably woven, for good or ill — mostly for ill, methinks.

    That’s one of the reasons things like Second Life are so paradigm-smashing — but that’s worthy of a short novel.

  14. John Biles

    Conversely, people tend to put way too much trust in avatars to represent the gender of the person accurately. Way back in the early 90s, when I was a regular on a MUCK (a text-only multi-user environment) called ‘AnimeMuck’. You had certain flags you could set on your character, such as your gender, and you could write up your own description of your appearance. About 50% of the characters were based on various Japanese animation characters, the rest were original characters evocative of various shows. Mine was one such, the Dread Pirate Bailesu, who was a Captain Harlock Parody and usually flagged male with a text description that made it very clear he was a guy.

    One day, having discovered that an online friend of mine who I had foolishly assumed was a woman was actually a man, I decided to change my desc to a sexy female space pirate and change my gender flag to female. (My name was gender enigmatic enough I didn’t have to change it). BLAMMO, massive changes in how people reacted to me if they hadn’t known me before (and there were so many people on AnimeMuck, you generally only knew a handful of people well).

    My various other mucking experiences have shown me that your choice of avatar has a huge influence because we’re all so visual. Some people actively realize this and play around with it, like one friend of mine who I first met when he was playing a character who was an unwed mother with a little baby, who he chose to play just to see how people would react.

    You can really learn a lot about gender by being in an environment where you can put up a mask of the other gender; it really, really shows how much of gender identity is a construct and that in fact, without visual cues, it’s extremely hard to tell men from women.

  15. Erin M

    First off, that picture of k.d. lang is smokin’. 😉 (And now we know where I stand. 😀 )

    I myself have found that most babies are in fact essentially androgynous because they’re babies, and I wouldn’t have cared either way. Still don’t.

    I had a linguistics prof that would intentionally call babies below a certain age (I forget what) “it”, since he was of the opinion that gender is primarily social and babies pre-socialization are therefore genderless.

    (And incidentally, can I put my vote in for official recognition of an androgynous third gender? ‘Cause that would totally make my life.)

  16. My first thought was I wonder how this is related to the studies (and anecdotal experiments) that show female screen names are far more likely than male ones (and somewhat more likely than androgynous ones) to be ignored or attract harassment. Like, the discomfort with androgyny really boils down to, “I’m not sure if you’re a man and deserving of my respect or a woman and deserving of my neglect/scorn. What do I do?”

    But then, that’s my gut response as a very girly feminist. People’s reactions to androgyny are obviously more complicated than plain misogyny, though the correlation is certainly there.

  17. Melaka

    I think people are put off by androgyny because they are put off by their response to it. If they are unsure of the gender, how can they be sure of their attractions? “OMG, did I want to have virtual sex with a virtual dude? I must be gay!” As people become less worried about attractions and gender roles, androgyny becomes more desirable.

    You are SO right about this. Growing up as a kid, my attraction to androgynous women confused me. More than once, I caught myself crushing on a cute boy, only to find out “he’s” a girl. Heck, it took me about 20 minutes of staring at a music video to figure out K.D. Lang was a woman, and about another 20 minutes struggling through deep denial of my attraction to her until I finally arrived to a conclusion that I could live with – that I was just attracted to her because I THOUGHT she was a boy, and that was just a fluke.

    NOT.

    🙂

    Now, I know I’m just queer as they come and I loooove women who are dykes and/or androgynous.

  18. a person

    I have never in my life understood why some people place so much value on knowing gender. It never matters to me when I meet people in real life or talk to them online what they look like. I just plain don’t even care.

    I guess I’m an alien from outer space.

  19. a person

    “I’m not sure if you’re a man and deserving of my respect or a woman and deserving of my neglect/scorn. What do I do?”

    That must be it. Because I’m a woman, and I just don’t give a crap what people are.

  20. I would be the happiest girl alive if more posts contained pictures of David Bowie. (And I think I would find an androgynous avatar pretty hot, as well.)

  21. I find myself wondering how the survey questions were phrased. Was it something like this: How trustworthy did you find this person? How androgynous was this character?

    Or was it something like this: On a scale of one to ten, rate the character’s: trustworthiness, likeability, scariness, honesty, etc. etc. Now, on a scale of one to ten, rate how “male” or “female” you consider this character.

    In the first, it sets up, a priori, a connection between trust and gender, and uses the language of “androgyny” which sounds strange and untrustworthy all on its own. (Not my opinion!)

    In the other, it has gender identity as one aspect among many of the character, thus obscuring the researcher’s intent to find a connection between two aspects (gender and trust).

    It sounds like a questionable survey in any case.

  22. Pingback: Spleenier Than Thou - Ketchup more trustworthy than Lizard!

  23. Interesting discussion on the topic.

    I followed the link and found an earlier study online. It includes the measures they used and all the images. Here is the rank by credibility
    http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue1/nowak.figure2/images-sort-cred.html

    I don’t see a ketchup bottle. I think that is a beer bottle that is more credible than the lizard.

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