Social psychology researchers have long known that de-emphasizing a stereotypical identity can help protect people from the threat of stereotypes, but what about identity change?
Over a decade ago, researchers at Stanford identified the Proteus effect, named after the Greek god who could transform into animals or even water. Research has shown that a virtual reality user behaves differently in this environment depending on their avatar.
The user knows that other people in the virtual environment attribute certain characteristics to the user’s avatar, and the user’s behavior is affected by these perceptions or stereotypes.
Peck and Good’s results, published in 2018 in a special edition of IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics with follow-up work published in 2020 in the ACM Computer-Human Interactions conference proceedings, first asserted that the harmful effect of the stereotypical threat could be found in a virtual environment.
They showed that women’s performance on a visuospatial test suffered when placed in a female avatar and said that men and women performed differently on the test, compared to when women in female avatars were. informed that there was no gender difference in test results.
However, when women were put into a male avatar and remembered a gender difference, their performance did not suffer.
It wasn’t just the participants who were touched.
“Anyone who was in a female avatar under threat of a stereotype,” Good said, “had lower math confidence than if they weren’t threatened.”
This means that men who were placed in female avatars performed worse on the visuospatial test when told there were gender differences on the test. In other words, just like the Proteus effect, when men were placed in female avatars, they adopted behaviors consistent with stereotypes of women.
In the end, the gender avatar switcher worked. He was able to fight stereotypes, but people can’t walk around in VR headsets all the time.
Peck and Good argue that there are promising and realistic future implications of their work. For example, they want to understand whether virtual reality technology can be used in real classrooms (both in person and in remote classrooms) to deal with real life stereotype threat experiences.
The pandemic has expanded the use of virtual tools, including virtual environments and virtual identities. We’ve all played around with changing our virtual background in Zoom, and many virtual educational institutions use avatars as back-ups for live teachers. Our familiarity with virtual tools, developed from a tragic global necessity, has paved the way for using the types of technology that Peck and Good seek.