From Facebook and Twitter profile photos to online dating pictures and gaming avatars, we face a growing number of decisions about how to represent ourselves on the Internet. And according to new research, suggests that the way we style ourselves online reveals valuable, even surprising information about our personalities in the real world.
Researchers from York University conducted an experiment to test whether people's online avatars reflected their real-world personality traits. They asked a group of university students to fill out a questionnaire evaluating measures of the Big Five personality traits -- extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience. Then, the students were asked to create avatars for themselves using weeworld.com. Then, a separate group of students was shown a subset of 15 to 16 of the avatars created by the first group of students and asked to assess the personality of the avatar's creator, and to determine whether they would want to be friends with that person.
While the avatars, of course, didn't offer a complete picture of their creator's personality, they did contain some important clues about an individual's offline character. The researchers found that from the avatars alone, the second group of students could infer information about the creator's levels of extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. However, the avatars didn't reveal anything about the openness and conscientiousness personality domains.
The students assessing the avatars overwhelmingly said they would want to be friends with the avatars that featured open eyes, smiles, brown hair and sweaters. Avatars with short hair, neutral expressions, black hair, hats and sunglasses were less likely to inspire friendship requests.
The researchers caution that the avatars used in the study were very basic, so it's possible that the results wouldn't extend to more complex avatars. However, there is some other data to suggest that people do use avatars to convey information about their personalities. A 2010 Canadian study found that people have a natural desire for their avatars to reflect who they are as a person, and tend to choose avatars that look similar to themselves.
The findings were published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.