Emotional Resilience Blog from The Fear Course

The latest research, realisations and thinking in the world of emotional resilience, anxiety and fear reduction from around the world.

How exercising an avatar can reduce anxiety and improve self-body image

How exercising an avatar can reduce anxiety and improve self-body image

Exergaming or video fitness games that require bodily movement of the player to play, and usually drive the movements of an avatar may have more going for them than might at first appear. The Wii Fit and Kinetic are two examples of these types of exergaming. A number of research studies have found that exergames with activities such as dancing, kickboxing and aerobics for example can have a number of beneficial health effects. However a series of previous studies have also found that people who exercise with other people tend to report more positive wellbeing and less anxiety as opposed to those who exercise on their own.

There is a group of people for whom group exercise is not an appealing thought. People with poor self-image perception or put another way, high levels of body image dissatisfaction, tend to find group or social exercise both demotivating and anxiety increasing, for obvious reasons. This especially occurs in situation where the majority other members of a workout group appear to be fitter or look better and in environments which have large mirrors.

So is it really better to exercise with others or on your own?

There is a syndrome known as social physique anxiety, where people have the feeling that their bodily looks are being negatively evaluated by others and as a result they suffer from embarrassment in many social settings. This is actually a subset of social anxiety. As one can imagine in such situations the motivation to exercise in front of others is quite low. In fact in some situations the anxiety can be so pronounced that a complete aversion to exercise can develop with the obvious health consequences.

A study to be published in July looks at the effects of solitary exergaming using avatars in situations where social physique anxiety and high levels of body image dissatisfaction occur.

You can probably see where this research is going, however there is an interesting twist in this study and it's called the Proteus Effect.

The Proteus Effect refers to a phenomenon noticed years ago in the online gaming world. It was found that people often tend to take on the attributes of the digital persona or avatar or character they are operating with. Studies have found for example, that people who use tall lean avatars in games tend to close the physical space between themselves and other people's avatars more than if they are using short fat avatars. Other studies have shown shifts in a range of persona attributes including general attitude, confidence, aggression levels, empathy, communication style, problem solving style etc. Researchers have been finding that it's not just online behaviour that can change as a result of the Proteus Effect. There have been a number of successful therapeutic interventions using avatars in areas such as weight loss, addiction, aggression / anger and confidence problems using avatars as role models.

The term Proteus Effect comes from the Greek sea god Proteus who is mentioned in Homers 'Odyssey'. Proteus, who lived in the sea, knows everything, everything that has happened, everything that is happening and everything that will happen and consequently was much valued. The only problem was that Proteus was somewhat of an elusive god and didn't like to give up his secrets. If approached Proteus would hide by transforming himself into other sea creatures so you couldn't work out who he was and get hold of this powerful knowledge.

The proteus effect refers then to the taking on of the attributes and persona of the avatar by the game player.

Not only can the shape, attractiveness and general attributes of an avatar change our online behaviour, but it also affects how we feel about the game or activity, other people and ourselves. Game designers have known for some time that people with more attractive and successful hero type avatars tend to build deeper affiliations with the game and other players and consequently tend to stay with the game longer. Avatar based games such as the ever popular Warcraft and online environments such as Second Life measure player engagement in terms of years as a direct result of this effect.

The thing to note here are these are emotional reactions. Emotions such as enjoyment, attachment, confidence and even grief are experienced whilst operating through an avatar. Not only are these emotions real for the participant but they are being altered as a direct result of the percieved personality of the avatar. In effect we tend to take on the personality projected by the character we are in effect role playing.

This study (remember that?) looked at three research questions:

1. How do body image dissatisfaction and exercise context affect individuals' (a) enjoyment, (b) mood, and (c) perceived exercise accomplishment during exergame play?
2. In the group context, will social physique anxiety be reduced during exergame play?
3. What is a role of self-presence in predicting perceived exercise accomplishment?

They had 732 people attend both group exercise classes and do solitary exergaming. Half of the population reported suffering from some form of body image anxiety.

  • The researchers found that all the participants significantly improved their enjoyment of solitary exercise using an avatar over doing the exercise in a live group situation. People with high levels of body image dissatisfaction had even greater levels of enjoyment than those with less of an issue about their body image.
  • When it came to an increase in positive mood, people with high body image dissatisfaction reported a significantly elevated effect on their mood as well whilst using an exergaming programme.
  • Again when it came to the perception of having accomplished something, everyone reported a significant increase whilst engaging in solitary exergaming over group exercise. This effect I assume is quite likely to be down to the progress bars and the like such games produce.
  • The big win from the research was that everyone saw a significant decrease in body image anxiety during exergaming when compared to social exercise and the effect was significantly more pronounced for those with higher levels of body image dissatisfaction than those with lower levels of body image anxiety.
  • Finally for the last question the researchers found that the role of the avatar was significant in these results. Basically what happens is that people identify emotionally and physically with their avatar and begin to experience the world through the percieved avatars personality, what scientists call self-presence. In other words, when playing such games we tend to experience the game as the avatar might rather than from our own perspective. The Proteus Effect in action.

So you can get into or more into exercise, reduce body image anxiety and feel better about the whole exercise thing by exercising an avatar!

References

Ball, K., Crawford, D., & Owen, N. (2008). Obesity as a barrier to physical activity.
Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 24, 331–333. http://
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Belling, L. R. (1992). The relationship between social physique anxiety and physical
activity. Unpublished master's thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Ersner-Hershfield, H., Bailenson, J. N., & Carstensen, L.L. (2008). Feeling more
connected to your future self: Using immersive virtual reality to increase retirement
saving. Paper presented at the Association for Psychological Science Annual
Convention, Chicago, IL.

Fox, J., & Bailenson, J. N. (2009). Virtual self-modeling: The effect of vicarious
reinforcement and identification on exercise behaviors. Media Psychology, 12,
1–25. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15213260802669474.

Song, H et al (2014) Virtual vs. real body in exergames: Reducing social physique anxiety
in exercise experiences. The journal of Computers in Human Behaviour. July 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.03.059

Yee, N., & Bailenson, J. (2007). The proteus effect: The effect of transformed self-
representation on behavior. Human Communication Research, 33, 271–290.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.2007.00299.x.

Yee, N., Bailenson, J. N., & Ducheneaut, N. (2009). The proteus effect: Implications of
transformed digital self-representation on online and offline behavior.
Communication Research, 36, 285–312. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0093650

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