Pride and Prejudice

Since virtual environments started getting noticed by the early adopters, there has been some discussion about social mores in and out of virtual environments. In particular this applies to users trying out avatars of a different gender, race, or overall look, to their regular atomic world selves. Educators and academics in general have noted students and other users typically bring their prejudices and biases with them into virtual environments, but that they also sometimes take what they have learned in virtual environments back into the atomic world with them.

Unfortunately, it seems that users open to such experimentation were already quite open-minded. More closed-minded individuals are less likely to experiment, and less likely to lose their prejudices along the way.

I belong to two genres of people which are often vilified and denigrated – I am somewhat Goth, and quite a bit Geek, and I express this both visually and in the way I act, both in virtual environments and atomic worlds. These are two groups I have found to be unpopular with other people, though less so in virtual environments. I had hoped that some of the acceptance from virtual environments might have spilled over into the atomic, but this does not seem to have been true to the extent that I might have hoped for.

Goths and Geeks that I know tend to have some areas of overlap – they tend to be individualists and thinkers, they tend to make up the innovator and early adopter part of the populace, they tend to act and dress distinctively, and they tend to be unpopular with other groups: educators, academics, business people – normal, mainstream folk.

I wondered why. Especially, I wondered why Goths and Geeks should be so unpopular amongst people who use virtual environments, and who are exposed to people with curious looks and outlooks on a regular basis.

This is what I came up with:

We make choices about how we are going to look, act and live our lives. We have made choices independently of our genes, of our circumstances. Other people could also make this choice – but instead they have remained with the cultural ideas and circumstances they were born into. The choice they often make instead is to disparage and utterly reject the people who have decided to live their lives intentionally.

Along similar lines is this thought:

I recently heard someone referring to their IT staff as “the enemy”. As an IT Geek, I found this to be a most off-putting thought. It makes it sound as though I have to wage war whenever I want to get my work done, making my under-paid, over-worked position even worse, and, boy, does it sound unfriendly! Again with the wondering – why?

The IT Geek often has at least two agendas: their own practical agenda (where is the point in having a firewall if you are just going to open ports for people at random?), and someone else’s political agenda – usually their boss, sometimes another member of staff. Rarely does the IT Geek have their own political agenda – if it seems that they do, it’s more likely that they are defending someone else’s policies, or it’s a case of apophenia (seeing patterns where none exist). Also, Geeks are rarely in a position to make policies.

I am a Goth, and a Geek, and I belong to a number of other unpopular sub-groups. I’d love for our society to change, with the assistance of virtual environments, to one that is more tolerant of people who are different, whether that be by birth, environment or choice.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Taking our biases with us into virtual environments.

Light skin or dark skin - it makes a difference even in virtual environments.

People are using the same cognitive tools in their social interactions within virtual environments as they would in the physical world. A recent study has confirmed this happens even though our avatars do not necessarily represent a clear picture of the people behind those avatars, with regards to gender, race, and all those other things that we have biases against.

The study’s co-investigators are Northwestern University’s Paul W. Eastwick, a doctoral student in psychology, and Wendi L. Gardner, Associate Professor of Psychology and member of Northwestern’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior. Eastwick’s past contributions revolve around romantic relationship development, and the use of speed dating and virtual environments to test psychological hypotheses. Gardner’s interests focus on the social aspects of the self, and the sorts of evaluation that are performed in the human brain that are unconscious.

Eastwick and Gardner performed the study in, which is billed primarily as a fantasy environment – it is social, and the interactions are with real people, but there are no programmatical constraints on how people represent themselves within those interactions. The management at showed significantly more interest in having the study performed in their virtual environment than did other services like Second Life.

Two classic social psychology experiments were performed within the realm of an avatar controlled by the study group attempted to influence an avatar controlled by a member of the native populace to fulfill a request. The door-in-the-face (DITF) gambit, in which a ridiculously large request is followed by a much more reasonable request, and the foot-in-the-door (FITD) technique, in which a small, reasonable request or statement is made, followed up with a much larger request, were used. Then, observation occurred to see how people reacted to a) the request in general and b) to the appearance of two different avatars in acquiescing to the request.

As in the physical world, the most successful technique was the DITF as performed by a light-skinned individual, with an increase in compliance of 20% over a simple request; compare this to only an 8% increase in compliance for the dark-skinned individual for the same technique. Less successful was FITD, which returned a result of only slight more compliance for either skinned individual.

Research has shown this disparity in the physical world for decades. DITF relies on a person’s perception of the person making the request: is this person worth impressing, and do I feel that I can risk offending them? FITD relies more on self-perception: how do I feel about my own reputation, and do I care how I appear to the person making the request?

Interestingly, many people seem to share the opinion that virtual environments are exempt from social influence. This idea possibly stems from the anonymity of having an avatar with which you do not identify, and which has no connection with your real identity. Or perhaps from the idea that virtual environments are in essence games in which anything goes and no-one can be harmed. Or even from the perspective that virtual environments are easy to leave, and therefore there need be no social ties with them. Nonetheless, it would appear that most people using virtual environments are heavily socially invested in them, to the extent that they apply their everyday social biases to the appearance of the avatars of those they interact with, and that they are just as susceptible to social gambits designed to increase compliance.

Source:  Real-world Behavior And Biases Show Up In Virtual World

Wendi L. Gardner’s professional page.

Paul Eastwick’s entry at the Department of Psychology, Northwestern University.

Social Influence Journal article.

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