Morality, Behaviour and Personality in Virtual Environment

The internet is a reality of modern age. When used wisely, it is perhaps the greatest ever invention of mankind. A person sitting in the privacy of ones home has access to all kinds of information, and misinformation, over the internet. One can play online games, chat with friends or total strangers, build social networks and do just about everything in the virtual environment that one can do in ones real life. With this easy access to internet, also comes various issues related online ethics. The anonymity provided by the internet allows a person to indulge in fantasies one would have never thought possible in the real world.

The virtual chat room allows one to adopt a cyber ego and pretend to a person one has always wanted to be. This essay explores the psychological effects of adopting such cyber egos in the virtual environment. As early as in 1996, Pratt had pointed out that that the interactions and communications in the cyberspace influence “group dynamics, work environment, social environment, personal and professional ethics and personality characteristics. ” (p. 21). He had explored the differences in the personality characteristics of a person in an online environment versus face to face real world situations.

He pointed out that while playing online games, people start behaving the way the virtual character in the game would play. He was of the opinion that this ability to lead an alternate life could lead to a shift in personality. During his research he observed that self-actualization in another world may lead to altered behaviour. The Spread of Internet Before moving on to behaviour of online users, it must be understood what kind of people are increasingly going online. As predicted by Pratt and reiterated by Zaphiris & Sarwar (2006), computer mediated communication has led to the formation of complex social networks.

Zaphiris & Sarwar carried out a study of two online newsgroups, one targeting the senior population and the other targeting teenagers. They attempted to study the differences in behaviour of the people posting these two newsgroups targeting two completely different set of audience. The initial results were obvious. A much larger number of teenagers (437) were online as compared to the seniors (131). Also, the teenagers were posting a much higher number of messages compared to the seniors. Even the length of the messages in the teenager’s newsgroups was longer than in seniors group.

But when it came to replying to messages posted on the groups, the seniors were found to be more conscientious as 78% of seniors replied compared to only 62% teens. The study concluded that “the senior newsgroup was more interactive than teens and offered a stable and consistent environment with a high level of activity” (p. 418). While this study is irrelevant to the scope of this essay, the study shows that the senior citizens continue to be conscientious of their online behaviour, just as they would be offline.

What this means that while studying the online behaviour, one must focus on the younger generations, which are more likely to go astray in the anonymity of the cyber environment, Advantages and Disadvantages of the internet The appeal of the internet as a medium of communication is its anonymity. “Internet users can make political claims as well as nonpolitical comments, engage in whistle-blowing, conduct commercial transactions, and consume sexual materials without apparently disclosing their identities.

” (Teich et al, 1999) Brey (2006) has catalogued the perceived benefits and harms of the internet. According to him, the benefits of internet on culture and society include access to information, information dissemination, communication, developing and maintaining social relationship, community formation and social organisation, production and commerce, leisure and entertainment, identity formation and psychological development, learning and cognitive development and cultural understanding.

On the other hand, the perceived harms and disadvantages of internet according to Brey include information overload, false information, harmful information, harmful communication, harmful effects on social relations, harmful effects on community and social organisation, harmful effects on production and commerce, harmful effects on identity formation and psychological development, harmful effects on learning and cognitive development, cultural fragmentation, loss of sense of reality and loss of privacy and private-public boundaries.

We know from experience that most of these advantages and threats of internet are real to a certain extent. In the context of this essay, we are concerned with the social and psychological effects of internet use, especially where a cyber ego is used as in chat rooms and online games. Limitations of the Virtual Environment While the internet can be seen as boon, it has several limitations. A person on the internet has access to all kinds of information. People can go on message boards, chat rooms, etc and have a social life very much like their offline social life.

However, virtual environment does not give specific pieces of social information “ranging from the number of participants in a conversation to the subtle nuances of expression that enrich face to face speech. ” (Viegas & Donath, 1999). Many attempts have been made to solve the problem of text only communication. But solutions so far available leave a lot to be desired. One of the available solutions is the allowing user to create avatars or graphical representations of themselves.

While the avatars allow a person to make a more assertive presence in the chat room, it still does not solve the problem of non-verbal communication which is almost always missing in the virtual environment. If anything, the avatars bring in another problem, that of individuals adopting the avatar, as well as the observer, identifying the online persona with their avatars. This identification with the online avatar leads to further problems in online behaviour and personality. The Cyber Ego Communicating online almost always entails forming a cyber ego or an “avatar”.

The anonymity of the online medium means that a person can pretend to be anything on these online chat rooms, games, etc. This leads to the question of the morality of the cyber ego. An avatar is a visual representation of the online personae. But as rightly pointed out by McArthur (2008, p. 3316), the avatar is more than a visual representation but a way to develop and project the online personality. The avatar may or may not reflect the real personality of the creator. However, this in itself is not a cause of concern.

It is normal for people to have multiple personalities in their daily lives and the online avatars are just an extension of this. The problem starts when people start altering the behaviour to go with the perceived online avatar. In daily life, people enact numerous roles throughout their lives. This can be termed as role playing. The anonymity of the internet takes this role playing a step ahead. In real life, the different identities of the person are still bound within the socially acceptable behaviour. But in the cyber space, completely new identities can be formed.

As pointed out by Gordon (2001), a meek and submissive person can have complete personality transformation when they join a chat room, “boldly dominating all electronic conversations with brilliant witticism and sparkling repartee. ” And this change of personality is just a start. People can do a lot more in the online chat rooms such as change gender, age, ethnic background, histories and other key personality characteristics. How different is the behaviour of a person in the virtual environment from the behaviour in the real environment can depend on a number of aspects.

If the aim of the user is to live out a fantasy they may not be able to in real life, then this virtual ego could be completely different from the real self of the person. On the other hand, if the person is only trying to get some legitimate information from a forum, he may not be interested in hiding his true persona. When people resort to false identities it is because in the virtual world a person can perform actions which are morally not acceptable in the real world. (Brey, 1999, p. 6). This problem was first faced with the online computer games.

A number of latest computer games allow the players to adopt a first person persona. Several games which encourage virtual immoral acts have been listed by Brey. For example in the Grand Theft Auto, a player plays the role of a small time criminal, eventually graduating to the major league. The game features several illegal activities such as burglary, auto theft and evading police. In the above example, it is obvious that the developers of this game do not find anything offending in virtual games which allow the online persona of the gamer to carry out burglary and evade police action.

By the same criteria, it would not be wrong “to murder, rape, torture or rob virtual human characters in virtual reality. (p. 8)” But we know from common sense that this is not acceptable. Brey has given an ethical reason why this is not acceptable even the virtual environment. The Kantian Duty of Ethics upholds that “human beings have a duty to treat other persons with respect, that is, to treat them as ends and not as means, or to do to them as one would expect to be treated by others (p. 8). ” But since virtual persons are not real persons, it may seem that these ethics do not apply in the virtual world.

However, Brey has pointed out that in Kant’s philosophy, even though animals do not need to be treated with respect, a person should not treat them cruelly as this may lead to treating fellow human beings cruelly as well. Using the same philosophy, cruel treatment of virtual people could lead to cruel treatment of real people as well. Another psychological argument given by Brey against such violent computer games is that a third party may be psychologically affected by knowledge that a representation of themselves is not being treated with respect by others.

According to this argument, since people identify with other people or representation of other people they perceive as belonging to the same social category, if such people are not treated with respect, people may feel threatened. Another reason why it is important to monitor virtual behaviour is because technology can create a kind of ‘psychological distance’ between those who use the technology to communicate and those they are communicating with. This distance impacts moral behaviour in such a way that the “usual social or moral constraints operative under normal (non-technology mediated) circumstances (e.

g. , face-to-face communication) may be reduced, thereby facilitating the occurrence of unethical activities. ” (Crowell, Narvaez & Gomberg, 2004). The Effect of Altered Ego The facility in these online mediums such as games, chat rooms etc, which allows the alteration of digital representation also, to a certain extent, affects the behaviour of the person. In experiments conducted by Yee & Bailenson (2007), it was found “that an individual’s behaviour conforms to their self-representation independent of how others perceive them.

” This phenomenon was termed by Yee & Bailenson as the Proteus Effect. Yee & Bailenson conducted two experiments to prove their theory. The first study found that participants assigned more attractive online avatars tended to be more intimate in the virtual environment when compared to the participants assigned less attractive avatars. Similarly, participants with taller avatars were found to be more confident than those with shorter avatars. As Yee & Bailenson have pointed out that the avatars change the way a person interacts with other people.

The anonymity of the online medium and the reduced social cues leads to deindividuation. In such an environment, the avatar becomes the representation of self. Hence, the avatar has a significant effect on the online behaviour. In other words, when the only way a person can be identified is through the online avatar, “in line with self perception theory, they conform to the behaviour that they believe others would expect them to have. ” Conclusion As seen above, the cyber ego has many moral, behavioural and personality related issues.

The adoption of an avatar can lead a person to behave in a way which is perceived to be the right behaviour for that particular avatar. On the other hand, the observer may also expect a person to behave in the way he has been socially conditioned to see the people represented by the online avatar to behave. This can lead to alter egos and fake identities which are nothing like the real personality of the persons. Bibliography Brey, P. 1999, “The ethics of representation and action in virtual reality”, Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 5-14.

[online] available from http://portal. acm. org. accessed June 17, 2008. Brey, P. 2006, “Evaluating the social and cultural implications of the internet”, ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society, vol. 36, issue. 3, pp. 41-48. [online] available from http://portal. acm. org. accessed June 17, 2008. Crowell C. R. , Narvaez, D. & Gomberg, A. C. , Freeman, L. & Peace, A. G. (eds. ). 2004, Information Ethics: Privacy and Intellectual Property, Information Science Publishing. Gordon, R. 2006, ‘The electronic personality and digital self’, Dispute Resolution Journal, vol 56, issue 1, pp.

8-19. [online] available from http://proquest. umi. com/pqdweb? did=69716641&sid=2&Fmt=4&clientId=1531&RQT=309&VName=PQD. accessed June 17, 2008. McArthur, V. 2008, “Real ethics in virtual world”, Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 3315 – 3320. [online] available from http://portal. acm. org. accessed June 17, 2008. Pratt, H. K. 1996, The electronic personality. Ph. D. diss. , The Fielding Institute. In Dissertations & Theses: A&I [database on-line]; available from http://www. proquest.

com (publication number AAT 9626656 accessed June 17, 2008. Teich, A. , Frankel, M. S. , Kling, R. &Ya-Ching Lee. 1999, ‘Anonymous Communication Policies for the Internet: Results and Recommendations of the AAAS Conference. ’ Information Society 15, no. 2: 71-77.

Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 18, 2008). Viegas, F. B. & Donath, J. 1999, ‘Chat Circles’, Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. pp. 9-16. [online] available from http://portal. acm. org. accessed June 17, 2008. Yee, N. & Bailenson, J.2007, ‘The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior’, human Communication Research, vol. 33, iss. 3, p. 271. [online] available from http://proquest. umi. com/pqdweb? did=1331964191&sid=1&Fmt=2&clientId=1531&RQT=309&VName=PQD accessed June 17, 2008. Zaphiris, P. & Sarwar, R. 2006, ‘Trends, similarities, and differences in the usage of teen and senior public online newsgroups’, ACM Transactions on Computer Human Interactions, vol. 13, issue 3, pp. 403 – 422. [online] available from http://portal. acm. org. accessed June 17, 2008.