Avatars May Inspire Us to Exercise

Can avatars change the way we think and act?Standford University
Researchers found that study participants who saw their own avatars running were more likely to exercise after they left the lab than participants who saw someone else's avatar exercising or saw themselves hanging out in a virtual room.

If seeing is believing, could watching a digitized version of yourself running on a treadmill drive you to get in shape?

Watching a self-resembling avatar in action turns out to be an effective motivational technique to start exercising, according to a Stanford University research project.

Participants who watched digital versions of themselves run on a treadmill ended up exercising nearly an hour longer than those who watched their avatars hang out or viewed avatars of other people exercising.


"We're definitely surprised that the manipulation worked," said Stanford doctoral student Jesse Fox, who oversaw the studies. "I was very fascinated."

Fox, who describes herself as a social scientist who didn't even own a computer, was curious how digital technologies could impact health and other behaviors. In three studies, each of which had about 80 participants, she found that virtual representations are a powerful motivation tool.

"When we see models that look like us, we're inclined to imitate the behaviors," Fox told Discovery News.

Researcher: Connection to Avatar Could Be Narcissism or Emotional Tie

It could be narcissism, or perhaps an emotional tie, but the sight of a virtual self exercising and making healthy food choices seems to have a positive impact on behaviors -- at least in the short term, Fox concludes.

For the studies, digital photographs of subjects were rendered into avatars. Participants wore a virtual reality helmet that projected images of their avatars running on a treadmill.

Other subjects watched avatars they didn't resemble exercise, and a third group watched their digital selves just hang out.

When participants were contacted a day later, those who had watched their digital selves exercise reported working out nearly an hour longer than the other subjects, Fox said.

"There is quite a bit of research in psychology indicating that if people mentally visualize themselves performing some task or behavior, they can then in reality actually improve their performance on that task. It's often used in sports psychology," John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University's Science and Technology Center, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

Researcher: Avatars Help Make More Tangible What You Would Like to Be

"The premise seems to be that if you can imagine it, you can start to make it real. Avatars and virtual environments take that process one step further. Avatars become a way to make more tangible what you would like to imagine yourself to be, which then might activate the potential to actually become what you imagine," Suler said.

Fox would like to take the experiment out of the lab and into more accessible virtual worlds, such as Second Life or possibly mobile applications. She also plans to study other behaviors, such as smoking, tanning and safe sex.