Can Personalized Avatars Unlock Good Health Intentions?

Can Personalized Avatars Unlock Good Health Intentions-If you’re building an online health behavior change program, how can you help motivate people to actually change their behavior offline? A newly published study suggests that one answer might lie in a design element: Allowing people to customize an avatar. In one study, people’s creation of a custom avatar as part of an online health program influenced their intention to exercise and their choice of a health behavior-related voucher.

One interesting facet of the study results is that creating an avatar to look like oneself was only positively related to health behavior and intention for people who had lower health internalization to begin with. That is, people who were less invested in the idea of being healthy to begin with experienced a boost when they made an avatar like themselves. People who started off more invested in health actually showed that boost when they created an avatar different from themselves.

One of the interaction effects from the study.
One of the interaction effects from the study.

What’s going on here? Why does creating “similar to me” avatars help less health-focused people form an intention to exercise but not more health-focused people? The authors of the study theorize that for health-focused people, the personalized avatar emphasizes that they are already on the road to health and makes exercise intentions feel less urgent, while for less health-focused people, the avatar highlights their need for exercise.

Best looking avatar EVER.
Best looking avatar EVER.

I would also be interested to see whether level of abstraction plays a role here. For someone who is already invested in health and engaging in healthy behaviors, exercise and eating well are concrete parts of everyday life. Compared to that, an avatar is a cartoon abstraction. For people who are not invested in health and don’t prioritize healthy behaviors, the avatar is actually a more concrete representation of health than their daily norm.

An exciting opportunity–one that, for all I know, is being seized–would be to analyze the data from programs such as WiiFit that allow people to create avatars (“Miis,” in Nintendo parlance). Is there any difference in commitment and progress over time based on whether or not people make their Miis look like themselves or not?

You can choose to make your Mii look like yourself, or not.
You can choose to make your Mii look like yourself, or not.

What do you think? Would an avatar help you feel motivated to behave in a more healthy way, or not? Would you make your avatar look like you?

Reference:

Franklin, W. T., Shyam, S. S., & Auriemma, J. (2015). Can customizing an avatar motivate exercise intentions and health behaviors among those with low health ideals? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 18(11), 687-690. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2014.0356