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Proteus effect

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

The Proteus effect is the tendency for people to be affected by their digital representations, such as avatars, dating site profiles and social networking personas. 

Typically, people's behavior shifts in accordance with their digital representatives. For example, in a video game, someone who creates an avatar based on a Viking warrior is likely to act more boldly within the game. 

Research suggests that the effect also extends into the player's real life. One study at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that players in an immersive virtual reality game who were assigned superhero avatars were more likely to be helpful afterwards. Other studies have produced similar results in a variety of other contexts. 

The capacity of the Proteus effect is being explored for therapeutic applications including behavioral modification, phobia desensitization and personal empowerment, among other possibilities. 

In Greek mythology, Proteus was sometimes known as the god of elusive sea change because he transformed himself to evade capture. From Proteus we get the adjective protean, meaning adaptable, versatile or capable of taking many forms.

 

This was last updated in January 2014

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