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  • Writer's pictureSarah Carter

Can we trust your avatar?

You'll need to better understand two ancient deities before we dive into answering that question: avatar and Proteus. Dr. DeSteno states, in The Truth About Trust, that an avatar is "an ancient Hindu term that originally referred to deities that descended to earth in various incarnations" pg. 189. Think Vishnu, the blue-ish humanoid god with four arms. Today, we've made it mean any digital image used to represent us to others across various digital platforms like the new Facebook caricature you probably created this past week. Much like Vishnu chose to present to the world a particular form, you purposefully chose to present yourself in a particular way as well. It may be very accurate or as far from the truth as you could possibly get.

The Greek god Proteus also purposefully chose specific forms in order to deceive those looking for him. People were constantly looking for him because he could tell the future so it behooved him to disguise himself. To "incarnate" other forms, such as animals or trees, if you will. He did this in order to manipulate what his hunters thought they were looking at, a harmless seal for example, and to ultimately avoid capture and exploitation.

So, when you jam the two together, you are playing Proteus when you create your digital avatar. Most of you out there probably aren't manipulating your avatar to the malicious extent Proteus did. You may have utilized a filter to give your skin a brighter glow, make your smile fuller, donned some specs to look studious, or any number of minor tweaks to your appearance. You may have also ensured that the picture was taken in a beautifully decorated space with perfect natural lighting surrounded by accomplishments (degrees, race medals, family photos, etc) so people looking at the digital you feel like you're competent and adventurous. Or you're a gamer and your avatar is the most badass MF'er on the system. You're huge, tattooed, pierced, covered in leather with every knife/gun you can think off hanging off your vest and a steely stare to intimidate anyone who dares to get too close. You're still thinking "oh Sarah, both of those are still harmless. I only changed me a little (case one). It's just for the game (case two)."

I'm with you! It all seems harmless if you're amongst the majority not out to be criminally malicious but you could be over promising and, worse, your avatar could be slowly rewiring your view of you. I know what you're thinking "Whoa that escalated quickly and I'm not sure that actually makes sense." So a brief history lesson on photos and the human brain...

Photographs were invented in 1826. Until then, and still since then, we used paintings and other forms of art to capture the likenesses of humans frozen in position and time. We've progressed now to creating avatars of all shapes and sizes and across countless mediums. Trouble is our brain matter that interprets signals for trust hasn't caught up with our art and tech advances. "Our minds try to extract whatever information they can from what they see, even though it usually ends up wrong" pg. 176. Our brain assigns emotions and feelings of trust to still pictures because it needs to "complete" the whole image/assessment of the person. Ultimately though "trust is about integrity and competence" pg. 87 which can't really be captured in a picture or avatar but our nonconscious brains still try because that is what evolution dictated that brain area should do.

Our brains are constantly looking for ways to streamline processes. There is a lot at stake when you're determining if you can trust someone but still your brain wants a shortcut especially now in our fast paced culture that wants to make equally "fast, effortless decisions" pg. 179. Before still images and phones were available, people had to physically go see other people to observe the non-verbal trust cues your brain believes it can pick up from another person's face (still or otherwise). Now you can just open up an app, find someone, and analyze their picture despite the fact that "basic facial expression often prove useless in isolation" pg. 153 and can be purposefully misleading. Your seemingly innocent minor alterations to your avatar's facial expression and surroundings could be signaling to someone that you are far more trustworthy, competent and integrous, than you really intend to be in whatever relationship develops between you and that person.

It may also be rewiring your brain to think those things as well. Great if it causes you to make efforts to be more trustworthy but not so great in the arena of overly-dominant, hyper-competitive "every person for themselves" war gamers. "The unintended result is that choosing an avatar that offers more power and opportunities for selfish behavior in a fantasy world may in subtle ways evoke those same behaviors in daily life" pg. 195. You may find yourself donning a steely glare in your daily life, getting a bold tattoo, and scaring away small children. Your pumped up avatar may have "altered [your] trust-relevant behavior for the worse" pg. 195. This is called the proteus effect.

"More can be achieved by working together than by working alone. That's why we trust - plain and simple" pg. 3. Your avatar is a seemingly small representation of you but in our world where avatar interactions are dominating our daily lives what that avatar portrays about your trustworthiness is vital. It needs to be accurate so as not to over promise to others and so it doesn't corrupts you. "Deciding to trust someone, more than almost any other decision we make, holds the keys to how resilient we, both as individuals and as a society, will be" pg. 241. You can try to go it alone, trust no one, and assume you're better off that way. But when you inevitably reach a point where you need to rely on others to rise-up from some disarming predicament, trust is the key and knowing how to read people will be a must.

What are your thoughts on Proteus and avatars? Is yours an accurate depiction of your trustworthiness? Did any of the studies in the book stand out to you as amazing/groundbreaking? Let me know what you think below in the comments, via email, or on any of my socials.

Time to take a little break from science and dive into a book written by an inspiring former colleuge of mine - Ty Pinkins. His is an underdog story that will resonate with many who've grown up below the poverty line and gone on to live incredible dreams. Grab a copy of 23 Miles & Running from Amazon today and join in the conversation June 5th!

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Sarah Carter
Sarah Carter
May 25, 2020

@drsha barnes I hadn't thought of it from the Christian lens. You're so right, it adds a whole other layer of questions to explore since trust is a central part to faith. While the book is not long, it is dense. He digs into some fascinating studies that blew my mind because I'd wondered when I picked up the book how one could effectively study trust. Seemed too abstract but they did it. Definitely recommend it!


DrSha Barnes
DrSha Barnes
May 23, 2020

Oh my goodness girl! The "Can you trust your avatar?" blog is excellent and thought-provoking, especially as a Christian. I may have to read that book!!

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