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Learning from the Virtual You

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Learning from the Virtual You

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Learning from the Virtual You

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

The way you see yourself online can affect your behavior offline. In other words, if you want to get thin, get a virtual life. That's what researchers at Stanford University say. Jeremy Bailenson is a professor there. He runs something called the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. I talked with him earlier.

So, what is a virtual human interaction lab?

Professor JEREMY BAILENSON (Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Stanford University): Well, we're a lab that studies how the human condition has changed given that people tend to spend lots and lots of time in digital space and interacting not with physical people but with digital representations of other people.

So, as a lab we study what's different now that we're interacting with virtual creatures as opposed to physical people.

SEABROOK: Okay. And you can use this fancy lab to make me thin?

Prof. BAILENSON: What we can do is we can show you a model of your optimal self. In two separate studies now we've demonstrated that the mere act of watching this causes you to see that weight change is possible and that in your optimal self you can actually lose weight.

SEABROOK: So, Professor Bailenson, make me thin. Take me into your lab - what do you do with me?

Prof. BAILENSON: So, you walk into the laboratory and what we do is we take a series of photographs of your head. You then sit down and we have a team of people in the other room that use modeling graphic software that fills what we call an avatar of you, which is a three-dimensional digital representation that looks just like you, just as if someone had crafted it using a chisel and clay.

What we then do is you put on a head-mounted display - it's a fancy helmet -and once you're inside the virtual world, we hit a button and right in front of you pops your virtual self. And your virtual self can do stuff that you've never done.

So, imagine now that you see your virtual self and your virtual self starts exercising and running on the treadmill, and as you're running, you actually see yourself lose weight.

SEABROOK: And so you've found that watching the cause and effect happen quickly in virtual reality makes people, I don't know, believe it more? It makes them exercise more in real reality.

Prof. BAILENSON: There's a psychological concept that's been around for a long time called vicarious reinforcement, which is if I actually see my physical behavior causes weight loss, it enables me to psychologically believe that weight loss is possible. And what we've shown in the lab is that when you do this virtual slimming of the avatar, it then causes people a. to exercise more in physical space in front of us, and then b. when they come back and report back to us in a week, we've actually found they've spent much more time - over an hour a day - exercising.

SEABROOK: Okay. So, I also understand that you also study virtual identity -looking at how differences in how your avatar looks can change the way you feel about how you look in real life.

Prof. BAILENSON: Right. What we study is in these online worlds, when somebody has an optimal self, how does that change how I think about myself and how I behave in a social matter? Meaning, how do I internalize this new me?

SEABROOK: And how do people?

Prof. BAILENSON: If I put you inside of a virtual simulation and you know you're wearing an avatar that's just a little bit more attractive than the norm and you then turn around and talk to somebody. If you have an attractive avatar, as opposed to a normal avatar, you'll stand about a meter closer to this person and…

SEABROOK: In virtual reality?

Prof. BAILENSON: Well, in the first round of studies we showed, yes, in virtual reality you behave more confidently and you're a much more social being when your avatar is attractive. When I leave the virtual world, how does this pervade. And we've run a series of studies now, probably the most stunning data that we've found is that so if I put you in virtual reality and you have an attractive face as an avatar, then an hour later when I put you across the hall, we ask you to set up an online dating profile.

And what we do is we ask you to choose people that you think you'd be a good match for. And more importantly, people you think that you would have a chance with, and what we found is that in virtual reality, an hour prior of you had an attractive face when you're later choosing people that you think will be good matches, you pick attractive people.

Meaning the confidence you've gotten from having a virtual attractive face pervades in the physical world one hour later such that when you're picking potential mates you think you've got a shot to be with better-looking people.

SEABROOK: Jeremy Bailenson, it all sounds interesting but I can't grasp what it means.

Prof. BAILENSON: It turns out in our daily life now we talk on cell phones all the time. Kids play video games more than they even watch movies or TV. There're social networking sites like MySpace and online dating and now we have virtual worlds like Second Life. The big picture is as we move forward people spend less and less time talking to physical versions of one another and more time talking to digital versions of one another.

And what we're showing at the most fundamental psychological level, how you gesture and verbally, how you talk, how you pick people that you're going to date, the way that you pick your avatar has very, very drastic effects on how you behave.

SEABROOK: Jeremy Bailenson runs the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. Thanks so much.

Prof. BAILENSON: Well, thank you.

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