The Proteus Effect and Self-Objectification via Avatars

Women whose avatars are dressed provocatively come to think of themselves more as objects than as people.

If women appear as sexualized avatars in a virtual reality world, it affects them in the real world, a new study by Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab has found. Specifically, women whose avatars are dressed provocatively think of themselves more as objects than as people.


This phenomenon is known as the Proteus effect, which describes someone adapting their behavior in order to conform to a digital persona. The term is derived from the Greek god Proteus, the god of "elusive sea change."

"We often talk about video game violence and how it affects people who play violent video games," said Jeremy Bailenson, the director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford. "I think it's equally important to think about sexualization."

After participants in Bailenson's study spent time in a virtual reality environment, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire in which they rated how much they agreed with statements. According to the Stanford Report:

Bailenson and [co-author Jesse Fox] folded rape myths such as "in the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation" into the questionnaire. Participants rated how much they agreed or disagreed with the statements.     

The participants who had worn the sexualized avatars tended to agree with rape myths more than the women who had worn the non-sexualized avatars. Women in sexualized avatars whose faces resembled their own agreed with the myths more than anyone else in the study.

Read Bailenson and Fox's research paper here (pdf). 

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