The New Digital Tribalism

Avatars, they’re just like us! Or should be for maximum effectiveness, according to recent studies. Right or wrong, race, gender, and attractiveness matter in virtual incarnations.

The New Digital Tribalism


Virtual assistants are widely regarded as silly things. Remember Clippy, from Microsoft Word? People basically danced on his grave.

But virtual assistants are actually important. As online learning becomes more prevalent, “helpers” in the form of avatars play a key role in instruction. A new study, forthcoming in Computers in Human Behavior, starts there and goes beyond the mere relevance of digital buddies to reveal a few things about personality, gender, and race in the virtual realm. As it turns out, people prefer avatars that are similar to them.

Tara Behrend, an assistant professor of organizational sciences at George Washington University, and Lori Foster Thompson, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, studied a sample of 257 people who interacted with some kind of helping avatars. On the whole, people reported higher engagement with avatars that looked like them, in terms of race and gender. They also learned better from the avatars when the helpers appeared to hold similar opinions about success. Learners who preferred striving for a personal best (measured against prior performance), rather than an absolute best (measured against others’ performance), learned more when their avatars measured success the same way.

“There is no reason we should make attributions about a person based on their avatar’s appearance,” Behrend tells Fast Company.
“But it’s likely that these tendencies are automatic–we tend to assume
that ‘beautiful equals good,’ both in real life, and as we found, in
the virtual world.”

If you’re a glass-half-empty type, the fact that the study participants responded better to avatars with the same skin tone is somewhat troubling. Should a white computer user treat a black avatar any differently than a white one? The election of President Obama having magically zapped racism out of real-life existence in America, shouldn’t it have done so in cyberspace? Of course (in case the irony wasn’t apparent there), race remains a stumbling block for many–so perhaps it’s no surprise to find there’s a new digital tribalism, when it comes to avatars.

Still, even if aspects of the findings are discouraging, there’s a way for companies, particularly software learning companies, to use them to innovate. Eventually toy makers caught on that it wasn’t fair for Barbies and other dolls to only come in one skin tone: white. Similarly, software designers may realize that diversity in avatars has its benefits, too–that “one size doesn’t fit all,” as Behrend told the Chronicle of Higher Education. By building better, or more tailored, avatars, e-learning advocates could help boost completion rates, and make online learning more social. “That is one of the issues with online learning, that it can be kind of lonely,” Thompson told the Chronicle. “If these agents are designed well, it can be a way to mitigate that.”


The pair have also conducted two other studies, not yet published, but with preliminary findings presented at the 2010 Academy of Management conference. These studies found that people learned better from avatars they designed themselves, and also that the attractiveness of an avatar affected the real-life decision making of hirers conducting virtual interviews. “

Food for thought for software designers. And if Microsoft brings back Clippy, they might want to make him a bit more like us.

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[Image: Flickr user driph]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.