Avatars are digital representations of people that are currently used in many online games and social networking applications. The researchers wondered if such representations could also be used to inspire positive health behaviors.
In the study, participants who watched their avatars run on a treadmill were more likely to exercise and exercise longer than participants who watched their avatars do nothing or who watched avatars of other people exercising.
Stanford doctoral student Jesse Fox, who oversaw the studies says, "We're definitely surprised that the manipulation worked. I was very fascinated. When we see models that look like us, we're inclined to imitate the behaviour."
The researchers conducted three studies, each of which included about 80 subjects. Digital photographs of the participants were used to create the digital avatars, which were then projected by helmets worn by the subjects. Some participants watched their avatars run on a treadmill, some watched their avatars simply hang out, and others watched avatars of other people exercising.
The next day, the participants who watched their own avatars exercising spent nearly an hour longer exercising than those in the other groups.
The researchers speculate that this behaviour is similar to the positive outcomes that happen when people visualize themselves doing an activity successfully. John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University's Science and Technology Center, notes, "There is quite a bit of research in psychology indicating that if people mentally visualise themselves performing some task or behaviour, they can then in reality actually improve their performance on that task. It's often used in sports psychology."
The idea is that if you can visualise it, you can make it happen. The use of avatars can make it that much easier to tangibly visualise your success, thus stimulating your motivation to take positive action.
The researchers plan to expand their studies to see if avatars can help with other positive health behaviours such as smoking cessation and safe sex practices.