Normally, we think of our selves as being located in our bodies. Hugging a child brings the child both closer to one's body and closer to one's representation of self. But is it in fact possible to separate our selves from our bodies and, for instance, become part of a video game?
Researchers Arthur B. Markman of the University of Texas, Austin and C. Miguel Brendl of INSEAD in France examined that question. Their findings confirm what any avid video-gamer might guess: "people's representations of self are distinct from their representation of particular aspects of their body."
Their findings are presented in the study "Constraining Theories of Embodied Cognition," in the January 2005 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.
The researchers designed a sort of video game to study external localizations of self. A computer screen depicted a corridor, with the participant's name halfway down the corridor. Words appeared on the screen, either past the participant's name (farther down the corridor) or in front of it. Participants had to use a joystick-like lever to move positive words toward their name and negative words away from it. Researchers measured the speed with which participants pushed or pulled the lever for different (positive and negative) words.
This test was designed to make use of an interesting phenomenon discovered in previous research: When participants are simply shown a screen with objects (i.e., without some representation of themselves on the screen also) and told to pull a lever when an object on the screen is positive and push the lever when it is negative, they are faster to make their judgments than when they are told to push the lever when the object is positive and to pull it when it is negative. In other words, ordinarily, people are quicker to "pull" positive words toward themselves and quicker to "push" negative words away.
But the test Markman and Brendl designed changes things, by placing the person's name within the virtual environment, thereby creating a separation between the participant's physical body and his or her representation of self. In this case, Markman explained, when words appear "near" in the corridor, "people are actually faster to push the joystick for positive words; which means pushing away from their physical body and toward their name, which serves as a representation of self. Likewise, they are faster to pull the joystick for negative words, which means pulling away from their name, but toward their physical body."
This finding suggests that "when people are playing with computer games on a screen, that they temporarily locate their self at their location on the screen rather than within their physical body."
It suggests that video-game players' perceptions and actions are affected by having this external representation of self; they might be more likely to perceive and act as if both their body and self are in the game.
For more information, contact Markman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.