Despite the title’s allusion to the occult, this is a topic that has some good application to human factors domains such as virtual environments and game design. It also demonstrates some interesting aspects of embodied cognition.
The study looked at how an avatar in a virtual environment, when physically synched with the user, can transfer its attributes into the user’s self-model and thereby affect the user’s future behavior. I see similarities with embodied cognition because in the virtual environment the avatar is acting as a correlate for the user’s body.
So here is what the study did. In the virtual environment, the avatar’s movement was either synched or not synched with the participant’s movement. Method checks verified that when it was synched, the participant felt that the avatar’s body felt like their own. In the synched condition, they also synched the lips so that when the participant read a list of words the avatar recited them in concert. The difference was that the voice of the avatar had either a higher or lower pitch than the participant. Then the participant exited the virtual environment and repeated the list of words. When the avatar was synched, the participant’s voice shifted in pitch towards the avatar’s voice, either higher or lower according to the condition. This occurred even though they had left the virtual environment and the avatar was no longer visible. The avatar’s identity lingered as part of the user’s identity for some time after. But when the two were not synched inside the virtual environment, the effect did not emerge. There was no transfer.
I see this as an example of embodied cognition because in the virtual environment the avatar is acting as a correlate for the user’s body. As I frequently point out, our brains didn’t evolve to handle these heavily artificial situations so it is not hard to induce mental shortcuts that have strange effects like this. I don’t design VEs myself, but I do use avatars in my gamification work. I am not sure how I will use it, but I will keep it as another tool in my human factors toolbox.
Can you think of one? What are the practical applications of this finding? Or the consequences that we need to watch out for in our design? Or is it total bunk? Please share.
Image credit: Tucia