The Art of Virtual Persuasion

Science  31 Aug 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5842, pp. 1343
DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5842.1343

If virtual worlds go the way of the World Wide Web, eventually hundreds of millions of people will be logging in daily for a spin around their favorite computer-generated world. But they will have to keep their wits about them. Social scientists are finding that online experiences influence offline thinking (see main text) and that manipulation—for political, advertising, or other purposes—may be much more sophisticated in virtual environments.

A variety of studies have shown that people who mimic the gestures or speech of others are often perceived by those they mimic as more likable and influential. In virtual environments, where everything is generated by computers, the potential for manipulation by mimicry can reach frightening new levels.

For example, a week before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Jeremy Bailenson and colleagues at Stanford University asked 240 volunteers to fill out surveys regarding the two main candidates, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, while viewing side-by-side photographs of the two men. For a randomly selected third of the subjects, the researchers used software to merge Bush's photo with a photo of the subject, making Bush look more like the subject without the subject noticing. Another third faced a Kerry doctored with their features, and for the remainder, the photos were unaltered. After viewing the photos, those subjects without strong partisan views tended to endorse the candidate whose face had been morphed with their own.

In another experiment, in 2005, Bailenson and colleagues asked undergraduate volunteers to don a virtual-reality helmet to watch someone argue for an unpopular real-life proposal that students carry an ID card at all times. When the virtual talking head mimicked the viewer's own head movements (as recorded and relayed by the helmet), the student responded more favorably to questions about the policy.

Such findings have potentially creepy implications. “It gets kind of icky if you think about politicians in the future that will change what they look like according to who's looking at them,” says Jeffrey Hancock, a psychologist at Cornell University. Of course, politicians already do that to some extent in the real world—donning overalls for a meeting with farmers, then switching to a suit for a meeting with business executives—but in virtual environments, computer algorithms could potentially enable a politician's (or a salesperson's) avatar to adjust his appearance and mannerisms instantly and automatically to maximize his influence in any given situation. In Second Life and other virtual environments, Bailenson points out, computer servers keep a running log of everything—every glance, nod, or flick of the hand that happens. “You have this huge database, and someone could grab it in real time and mimic you at a subtle level,” he says. “I think it's important for people to realize how difficult it is to detect this when it happens in the digital world and how powerful it is.”

At the same time, Bailenson says, the power of mimicry could have beneficial uses as well—to create avatars for teachers that are personalized for each student, for example. “If I'm a teacher and I really want to reach a student, I have a new tool,” he says.

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