Can Others Tell Your Personality From Your Avatar?

2021.09.23.

Today you’ll find that many websites will give you the opportunity to represent yourself with a fictional cartoony picture which is known as an avatar. On the whole, these will have facial features along with some clothing and accessories. The main point being that you can personalize your picture and be whoever you want to be. It’s a great possibility to reinvent yourself for the digital age. In the age of all encompassing social media, you'll find that many platforms and forums encourage the use of avatars being made, before you actually enter the social space or platform. To make life even easier, you’ll find many offer avatar making software solutions, so you can be up and running with your avatar in no time.

Is it Really a Representation Of Yourself?

One thing is certain, and that’s that your Avatar is going to affect the way people will interact with you. This brings us to the basic questions of whether people choose avatars because they will represent themselves accurately or whether it's the opposite, and they aim to display a completely different person in the digital world. Does the avatar creator want to display a person with amplified characteristics which are in some ways connected to themselves in real life? Or do they simply want to create someone else, someone they are not and can never be? Also it's interesting to see the onlooker’s opinions on the actual person when judged through the lens of their avatar.

Is There a Secret Behind Our Choice of Avatar?

Two psychologists, Katrina Fong and Raymond Mar looked into the whole phenomena surrounding avatars and published their results in a paper called “Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin.” They performed two similar experiments with different sample sizes, to compare the self made avatar with how others might perceive the personality behind the creator. 

In the first experiment, they asked around 100 people to use the website “weeworld.com” and choose an avatar. Half the group were instructed to simply create an avatar for themselves. The other half were asked to design an avatar which would be as realistic and as close to their own personalities as possible. When comparing the two sets of avatars, there were no significant differences found. This points to the fact that most people try and represent themselves naturally. The researchers identified and labelled the big five personality traits used when creating an avatar. These included Agreeableness, Openness, Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism.

For the second experiment, around 2,000 participants were shown avatars and asked to rate their perception of the personality characteristics of those who had created the avatars they were looking at. They were asked to rate as to how much they would like to interact with the actual creator of the avatar. One factor that the researchers wanted to know was whether the gender of the avatar had an influence on people's judgements of personality. That's because all the avatars were classified as either male or female. 

The researchers compared people who rated their own personality after seeing the avatars that have been constructed with those of their own personality characteristics. This showed that, on the whole, most people can determine someone's agreeableness to some degree. But identifying other characteristics was not possible with any degree of accuracy. When looking at avatars that were correlated to people’s personality ratings, it was seen that those who were high in agreeableness tended to select avatars with wide open eyes. In fact, an avatar having large eyes tended to be deemed, in the eyes of the person behind it, as being more agreeable than if another avatar had small eyes.

Lots of Whataboutism

There was very little correlation between the aspects of avatars that rated as more important when judging a person's personality and their real personality characteristics. An example with the length of hair. Avatars with short hair tended to be rated as more conscientious than those with long hair. The characteristic of consciousness is strongly associated with neuroticism. So they found that people who designed their own avatars, and had a high level of neuroticism, tended to make their avatars with long hair.

One final point of interest. The characteristics of avatars did have a strong influence on whether people were interested in befriending the person behind it. Avatars with a certain facial structure including large open eyes, an oval face, and smiling were less likely to be reaching out in friendship to those people who had avatars where the facial expression didn't include a smile.  

So, what does all of this mean?

With the advent of social media and all the possibilities of creativity that these new platforms have developed, it means that people are looking for personality characteristics within the things others create. They dissect everything from photos to blog posts to Instagram stories. As an avatar is seen as an expression of the individual who created it, you would imagine that we would be able to ascertain more information from it. Unfortunately, when people create an avatar, it's hard to get to know much about them. There's very little information to be gleaned apart from extraversion and agreeableness. But even then, the correlation is rather vague.

There Are no Hard And Fast Rules

You would think that in designing your own avatar, you would amplify your positive qualities and play down your negative ones. You might also take the chance to design your own mini-me which would conform to the social norms needed to create friendships and to be upstanding, trustworthy,and attractive. That is one aspect of designing an avatar that allows us to express how we see ourselves. But the proof of the pudding is in how others see us through our avatar. 

And in truth, they don't see much of us at all. It's as if an avatar is used more to disguise ourselves than to seize the opportunity to be more open. In the end, the researchers concluded that people tend to overestimate their ability to read someone's personality by their own avatar. 

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