News Release

More equal online: Study reveals people’s idealized self-representation on the internet

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Cologne

Researchers in social and media psychology at the University of Cologne have explored digital environments in which people tend to portray themselves in an idealized way. The results show that there is a clear tendency to assign idealized attributes to one’s avatar, especially regarding one’s psychological traits. The study ‘Self-representation through avatars in digital environments’ has been published in Current Psychology.

The internet allows people to present their physical and psychological attributes to an extent that does not correspond to reality. A research group led by University of Cologne psychologist Professor Kai Kaspar wanted to find out whether people tend to idealize themselves, and if so, in which contexts. For the study, 568 people were randomly assigned to one of six digital environments in an online experiment: online dating, competitive online gaming, cooperative online gaming, social network with friends, social network with strangers, social network with job contacts.

Participants had to provide physical and demographic as well as psychological attributes, once for their actual self-image (i.e., how they actually assessed themselves), their ideal self-image (how they would like to be), and for the online avatar (through which they would like to portray themselves virtually). The main question the researchers explored was: Do people design their avatar more like they really are (real representation) or more like they would like to be (idealized representation)?

The scientists found that for most internet users, height, body weight, age, and gender matched between actual self, idealized self, and avatar. ‘We saw only a slight tendency in the different environments for people to present their avatars differently than they actually are, or than they would like to be,’ said Kaspar.

In the case of psychological characteristics, on the other hand, there was a clear tendency to assign idealized attributes to the avatar. Online, people claimed to be more extroverted, more agreeable, more conscientious and less neurotic than they actually thought they were. The researchers hardly observed any difference between the six environments. ‘Idealized self-representation through one’s avatar seems to be a general internet phenomenon, and pertains more to psychological traits than to physical ones. This is exciting because self-representation on the internet is becoming more and more important. Particularly striking is people’s strong idealization of neurotic tendencies,’ said co-author Zimmermann.  

Moreover, regarding attributed psychological characteristics, it became apparent that the actual differences among people are greater than the differences that could be observed among their avatars. Hence, it appears that internet users for the most part do not exploit the full range of possible avatar designs. Rather, there seems to be an orientation towards social norms, which is why avatars are more similar to each other than to people in real life.

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