Article image

Online avatars sway our morals through social influence

Have you ever argued a point passionately, only to find yourself agreeing with the other side when the conversation ends? New research shows that even avatars in a virtual world can influence your opinions, particularly when it comes to judging right and wrong.

Scientists at SWPS University, along with international collaborators, investigated a phenomenon called social influence. Simply put, it’s the pressure we feel, consciously or not, to conform to the views of others within a group.

Social influence isn’t limited to the real world; it appears our digital avatars can exert a similar force.

Avatars and social influence

Avatars are simply those digital representations we create of ourselves in the online world. Think of them as your virtual stand-ins.

Social influence, on the other hand, is that often unconscious urge to fit in, to adopt the opinions and behaviors of the group. “We usually conform to the views of others for two reasons,” explains Dr. Konrad Bocian from SWPS University.

“First, we succumb to group pressure and want to gain social acceptance. Second, we lack sufficient knowledge and perceive the group as a source of a better interpretation of the current situation.”

Influence in the real vs. virtual world

The scientists conducted a two-part experiment. The study began by having participants judge morally ambiguous scenarios. Take the following example: a mother punishes her child for poor academic performance.

The participants offered their initial judgment privately. Then things got interesting.

In the second part of the study, researchers revealed how others had judged the exact same scenarios, often with starkly different perspectives. This is where the pressure to conform came into play.

Participants changed their original moral judgments to align with the group 43% of the time. But, when the situation involved harm, the likelihood of the social influence lessened. This indicated the participants boundary within moral conformity.

Social influence of virtual reality

The second experiment introduced an entirely new dimension: virtual reality (VR). Participants donned VR headsets and were immersed in a simulated environment with three avatars.

Some of these avatars were controlled by real people while others were powered by artificial intelligence.

The shocking revelation? Whether the avatars were governed by a human mind or simply lines of code, the level of social influence remained surprisingly similar. Participants adjusted their judgments to match the virtual group nearly 30% of the time.

“The results suggest that judgments about moral behavior, like other judgments we make, are subject to pressure from both real and virtual groups,” notes Dr. Bocian.

Dangers of digital reality

“Today, social influence is increasingly as potent in the digital world as in the real world,” Dr. Bocian points out. “Therefore, it is necessary to determine how our judgments are shaped in the digital reality, where interactions take place online, and some participants are avatars, not real humans.”

This opens up a crucial discussion. In a world where we’re spending increasing amounts of time in the metaverse and other virtual spaces, the distinction between the ‘real’ and the simulated is blurring.

“Group pressure to influence private moral judgments of individuals in a virtual world can be used for both good and malicious purposes,” says Dr. Bocian.

“This is why understanding the mechanisms of this influence is so important. Only with in-depth knowledge can we increase the awareness of virtual world participants about the influence that others can have on them.”

Our susceptibility to influence

This research serves as a chilling wake-up call. While virtual worlds hold exciting potential for connection, innovation, and creativity, they also come with unique social traps.

The avatars we interact with, regardless of the intelligence behind them, possess an unsettling power to shape our thoughts and behaviors.

As we venture deeper into digital realms, keeping a watchful eye on our susceptibility to influence will be crucial in navigating these brave new worlds. It’s vital not to underestimate this power.

Being aware of this potential for influence, while simultaneously fostering critical thinking skills, will be key to developing a healthy relationship with the expanding virtual landscapes.

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day