The Proteus Effect


The other night I had a scary dream.  I was alone in a house at a very remote place. The house was being entered by a giant spaceship. The last thing I remember is how an individual in cyber outfit looked through the window, spotting me. That moment of being  discovered was terrifying. Unable to hide or run and clearly in fear of what would happen my instinct controlled me into making myself as little as possible to somehow protect myself against the danger. I recall a foetus pose on the floor in a corner of the room with a heavily shivering body and paralyzed mind. Right after that I woke up, happy to realize it was a dream and to not have to experience the undoubtedly bad ending. But why undoubtedly? Without any evidence I expected the worst case scenario of being taken hostage or killed. Why not expect something positive? Why so convinced that evil would happen? Why not a friendly hello and nice to meet you scenario?  Probably because I associate spaceships and cyber soldiers with something dangerous like in Star Wars. My view on science-fiction will have influences from all kinds of movies and other media stimulating to feel scared when I would encounter them for real (a dream feels like real until you wake up). And probably I also tend to expect the worst because I have lived in worst case scenario fears in RL for over 30 years before I got a better grip on that. Getting a better grip on it in my dreams would be a nice next step.  I suppose a mix of real and imaginative fears define what and how I dream. Fact is I regularly dream of fears and hardly ever something pleasant.  How we perceive(d)  life and ourselves will have a big influence on how we feel and act, which seems quite normal (as in logic) to me.


Second Life

Let’s look at Second Life as a  kind of dream reality as well.  There are some major differences that matter when doing so:


  1. You can decide yourself when to start or end the dream (login and logoff)
  2. You can influence your dream in full conscience/awareness

  3. You know or at least should know it is a world in which you represent another you via an avatar/ virtual reality


In virtual worlds we also will be influenced by how we perceive life and ourselves. But because we create an avatar we add an extra element, which in fact is the very first look at our self-perception. The name we choose, the looks we create, the clothes we wear, the communities we socialize with, the friends we keep or leave, the amount of time we choose to spend, the partners we relate to or leave behind, the role play we perform, the creations we make. etc etc. I think most of us spend a lot of time in creating or improving a certain look we can identify with and use in a way that makes us feel happy. Let’s call that a form of fulfilling  your dream. And believe it or not . . . .  but the chosen visual representation of ourselves into an avatar matters very much in how we will behave and try to find a satisfying fulfillment. This has to do with what is called the Proteus effect.


The Proteus Effect


The Proteus effect describes a phenomenon in which the behaviour of an individual, within virtual worlds, is changed by the characteristics of their avatar.


The Proteus effect gets its name from the Greek god Proteus, who could easily alter his self-representation. Yee and colleagues (e.g., 2007, 2009) argue that virtual avatars provide ordinary people with protean powers, as they are able to instantly and easily change their avatar-based self-representations. Proteus research flips this phenomenon on its head and suggests that those changes in self-representation also change the self (Yee & Bailenson, 2007). That is – a user’s avatar might have a psychological impact on themselves and their surrounding social system. (Sherrick et al, 2014). The Proteus effect consists of 3 closely related components:


Behavioural confirmation

We all know how we are influenced to act in a certain way, knowing other people’s expectations. When a therapist or parent will be satisfied with a positive reply to their guidance we often will show that behaviour to escape troubles or to improve how they perceive us as good persons. So, the awareness of perceivers watching us make us show certain behaviour.

The Proteus effect differs from behavioural confirmation in that it does not consider the actions of a perceiver. When representing ourselves through an avatar, it has been confirmed it is the individual’s own stereotypes and expectations driving the change in behaviour, independent of any social interactions that take place. The way we create ourselves (visually) results in behaviour matching with our avatar creation. In a virtual world you can be the creator of your own expectations like this.  Like being dressed like a clown on a stage will improve acting like a clown and make you feel like one (even when you are not really).


Self-perception theory

Self-perception theory states that individuals determine their attitudes and emotions by making observations about both their own behaviour and the circumstances that led to those behaviours. It was first introduced as an alternative to cognitive dissonance, which argued that changes in behaviour can result from an individual’s attempt to eliminate tension from contradicting behaviours and beliefs. The Proteus effect carries this idea into virtual environments, where individuals see themselves as their avatar which in turn shapes their behaviour. Some examples:

  • People behave more confidently with taller avatars (Yee & Bailenson, 2007; Yee et al., 2009)
  • Individuals may act friendlier if their avatars are more attractive (Messinger et al, 2008; Yee & Bailenson, 2007)
  • Individuals may report more negative and aggressive thoughts if their avatars are dressed in black or in Ku Klux Klan outfits (Peña, Hancock, & Merola, 2009)
  • Individuals may report less aggression if their avatars are males facing females in battle (Eastin, 2006)
  • Participants who wore sexualized avatars internalized the avatar’s appearance and self-objectified, reporting more body-related thoughts than those wearing non-sexualized avatars. (Fox et al., 2013)

So, to be blunt . . if I dress like a whore it is more likely I will also act like a whore. If I like to feel attractive it is more likely I will create an avatar that to me feels attractive and that will improve my self-image while being with the avatar. If I like to be a harasser  I will create an unconventional avatar which makes me capable to act less conventional as well. Matching the looks with my wish / expectations will result in a kind of alter ego , another me.  The Proteus effect is a tool to become your own ideal version of what you want to represent.



Deindividuation refers to a decrease in self-awareness and self-evaluation as a result of being part of a group. In virtual environments, deindividuation is believed to be driven by the level of anonymity that this type of setting provides for its users. We  can hide behind our anonymity, when we we create an avatar expressing a certain behaviour we rather not be linked with in a real life presence. There are no consequences like in RL. Can be tricky and stimulate abuse or a kind of apathy for what is  going on.


Study in Second Life

Findings from a study that compared the appearance and behaviours of avatars in Second Life to the real world behaviour and appearance of their users support the Proteus effect. In this study, participants who reported that they had designed their avatars to be more attractive also reported engaging in more confident and extraverted behaviour when compared to their real world behaviour.

I think that’s pretty clear. Even when only walking one day in Second Life you already so see many extraordinary and extraverted behaviours (not being shown in the real world) it only can be explained by something like the Proteus Effect.

Dress what you like to be, dress to impress and dress for success, is not so far away from this research. You can create a certain persona of yourself by choosing a certain look. In virtual life this all can be done with a few clicks and with a level of perfection that never will be possible in the real world. If that’s a good or bad thing is hard to tell. I think it can be both. When it helps socially introverted people to have a social life and improve their skills to interact  . . . .  seems quite ok to me. When it drives you into a version of you who loses all touch with the real world version of you  (with possible consequences of living in a dream too much) , I have some doubts.  But of course we also are more than our looks. We all have a character and personality in the real world we cannot change or escape really in whatever virtual world. A look can help to show behaviour we like to be associated with, but it cannot change who we really are :)  A look combined with all kinds of matching behaviours can however disguise who we really are, when able to stick to the chosen role as if its the real you, undisturbed and steady as a rock. Some can do that  . . .  I always wonder how :)


The video below shows an example of a positive use of the Proteus Effect with a medical avatar


Real life and Second life

Some look at Second Life and Real Life as being the same. Others make a strict difference between them. And a third group mixes it.  I think how we look at this has to do with how we act as avatar in Second Life and with that how we create ourselves in Second Life. If someone creates a very realistic avatar as main look(zero fantasy or extravagancy in looks and clothes and thus as well in  behaviours) the perception of SL will be as close to real as possible. The more ‘extreme’ we play with elements not possible for us in RL ( animal, cyber, fantasy, sexual), the more we create a distance between the two worlds. I tend to be the mixer myself. I cannot separate SL and RL totally but also not see them as equal worlds. Maybe my looks show that. Not totally me in RL, not always free of extra elements like cyber, not always free of sexualized looks, but at the same time trying to not lose the RL perception as well totally.  I think I am very much aware of my avatar being a perfected version of me.

So I better not take myself toooo serious ( in being some sort of ideal whatever) because following the Proteus effect it means my RL behaviour is less perfect. I like to stay aware of being imperfect in RL and confront myself with that when I smell too much perfection around me or about me.

That last part scares me even more than seeing perfection around me . . .  To be seen as perfect immediately activates all alarm bells in me. And no matter how close you create an avatar to the RL you, I believe there always is a not visible part, simply because the real world has other triggers to activate behaviour than Second Life. In the real world you may be less perfect, but you sure as hell are more complex and complete with a body, mind and character free from customizing tools like in Second Life.  In fact that’s what we should call perfection. To be complex, complete and full of imperfections, to have no one-click customization. That’s a kind of perfection SL never will be able to create, even not when having a photorealistic avatar.

P.S. I think the reason we sometimes decide to exchange RL pics also is a way to overcome the gap between RL and SL, but it stays a 2d not alive version of us and only a pic :)



It’s technology being the spine of an avatar, it’s your own perception (wishes, expectations, stereotypes) creating the avatar you like to be related with/ associated with. The Real life you always will be a more real you, no matter what. If you are an asshole in Second Life, you can be a very cool person in RL, . . . .  OR . . . . . an even worse asshole person in RL. It all depends  on how close your virtual representation is to your RL you. What you see is what you get, but what the other gets is what YOU decide to show. Being an asshole can be a chosen role or really you. Same for being an angel face with angelic behaviour. Or the fantastic artist, great photographer, exclusive gallery owner, excellent sub, dom, playboy, dandy, hooker, unique designer, reasonable landowner or terrible harasser. A lot of this comes with self-assigned roles and self-assigned values. Not always, not everyone, just a lot :)  Thats what makes Second Life sometimes the most annoying place to be. But also the most funny one because it can be so hilarious pathetic I only can laugh at it and at times thank goodness also at myself. I think Second Life is a world where one thing is close to perfection  . . . .  mind games.  In a good and a bad way both :)





For who dislikes reading   . . . maybe try this radio interview with a researcher from Stanford University, Jeremy Bailenson

Our Digital Self

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