Cafeteria: Eatery, or Tool of The Man?
by Toby Butterfield, student writer
Have you ever thought about the profound psychological impact the school cafeteria has on your life? No? Well, Jorge Peña has. “When you go to [the cafeteria] it doesn’t really matter who you are, in terms of personality. You have this patterned way of asking for food, paying, eating, and leaving. So certain contexts may override personality…”
It might not seem that important; after all, most people try to escape from the cafeteria as soon as possible. Suppose, though, that there was a persistent realm, a persistent context, like an online video game, in which people could spend hours every day pretending they were someone else. What impact would this have on their personality? Would their avatar take on aspects of themselves, or would they take on aspects of their avatar? These are just a few of the questions Peña wants to answer.
Peña is building on some previous research in the field, indicating that “…the real self, who you are, also gets affected by who you become online.” “…[The researchers] would give you avatars that were more or less attractive in terms of facial features… the people who have the more attractive avatars will disclose more online and have shorter interpersonal distances. If you were assigned to a less attractive avatar, participants would reveal less and place their avatars farther away from each other.”
Inspired by research in the Cornell Psychology Department (Frank and Gilovich) in which the aggressiveness of professional sports teams was correlated with the darkness, or malevolence, of their jerseys, Peña conducted a similar study in which a group of users were all given an avatar or virtual character. Each of these was identical to the last in every way save the clothing. Some wore black, some wore white. He found that the black-garbed avatars were more likely to choose strong punishment for other people. Moreover, despite their harsh judgment of others for breaking the rules, they would often choose to break the rules themselves. People employing avatars in white clothes, by contrast, were much more social, usually focused on helping others and being useful members of a team.
In both cases, the users were not consciously aware of this change in their attitudes.
This may seem kind of abstract, but Peña cuts right to the point: “Sometimes, you just suddenly become stereotyped and you don’t even notice. That’s the lead we are after right now.”
Video games are providing the backdrop for some very important research into human behavior. Psychologists and sociologists have often wondered if pigeonholing someone can change their personality, but in the real world, with so many factors to consider, it’s difficult to determine causality.
Video games and virtual reality systems in general provide a convenient test-tube in which we can test such hypotheses. And your mom always said they weren’t good for anything.