Lee, J.E., Nass, C.I., & Bailenson, J.N. (2014). Does the mask govern the mind? : Effects of arbitrary gender representation on quantitative task performance in avatar-represented virtual groups. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking, 17 (4), 248-254.
Virtual environments employing avatars for self-representation-including the opportunity to represent or misrepresent social categories-raise interesting and intriguing questions as to how one’s avatar-based social category shapes social identity dynamics, particularly when stereotypes prevalent in the offline world apply to the social categories visually represented by avatars. The present experiment investigated how social category representation via avatars (i.e., graphical representations of people in computer-mediated environments) affects stereotype-relevant task performance. In particular, building on and extending the Proteus effect model, we explored whether and how stereotype lift (i.e., a performance boost caused by the awareness of a domain-specific negative stereotype associated with outgroup members) occurred in virtual group settings in which avatar-based gender representation was arbitrary. Female and male participants (N=120) were randomly assigned either a female avatar or a male avatar through a process masked as a random drawing. They were then placed in a numerical minority status with respect to virtual gender-as the only virtual female (male) in a computer-mediated triad with two opposite-gendered avatars-and performed a mental arithmetic task either competitively or cooperatively. The data revealed that participants who were arbitrarily represented by a male avatar and competed against two ostensible female avatars showed strongest performance compared to others on the arithmetic task. This pattern occurred regardless of participants’ actual gender, pointing to a virtual stereotype lift effect. Additional mediation tests showed that task motivation partially mediated the effect. Theoretical and practical implications for social identity dynamics in avatar-based virtual environments are discussed.