Jesse Fox

Communication, singular

Category: Research

Relational maintenance on TV

I have several graduate students doing exciting work with relational maintenance, including Courtney Anderegg. In my Media & Relationships class, I mentioned in passing that I’d never seen a content analysis about romantic relationship maintenance behaviors on television, and before I knew it, Courtney was in my office with a plan. Graduate student Katie Dale joined us, and then a casual question became a research project.

What comes to mind when you think about romantic relationships on the television shows you watch? (I just caught up with the last season of Game of Thrones, so I’m going to pass on answering this one myself.) Perhaps you’re used to seeing the back-and-forth insult-ridden banter between couples, punctuated by canned laughter, on sitcoms. Or, maybe you’re more accustomed to the overwrought, constantly troubled relationships on dramas. Or, perhaps you prefer the grotesque portrayals of romance on reality shows. Regardless, research had yet to explore how these romantic relationships are sustained in these shows.

In the content analysis, we composed a sample week of prime time network television. (Dr. Dana Mastro was infinitely helpful during this process.) We then coded speaking turns using Stafford’s (2011) Relational Maintenance Behavior Measure, which includes positivity (being positive toward your partner), assurances (being there for your partner now and in the future), self-disclosure (sharing information about yourself with your partner), understanding (sympathizing with your partner and apologizing when appropriate), networks (involving friends and family),  relationship talks (discussing the state of the relationship), and tasks (performing activities like household chores).

All types of relational maintenance were present on prime time television. Although most relationship maintenance studies found equal distribution of behaviors, however, we found those portrayed on television to be skewed. Networks were particularly popular, whereas assurances were very rare.

We also observed differences across genres. Comedies revealed a greater number of maintenance behaviors than dramas, but they also revealed a greater number of negative maintenance behaviors (e.g., showing a lack of understanding, withholding information from one’s partner). Given that bad behavior is often reinforced in comedies both on screen (e.g., because the show is humorous, serious consequences are rare and forgiveness is always provided) and in the viewing experience (via laughter from laugh track or studio audience), comedies may be modeling unhelpful behaviors for romantic partners.

Very exciting to do some exploratory work on relational maintenance and media. We will be continuing this work in different contexts in future projects. Email if you can’t access the paper from the like below and would like a copy.

Anderegg, C., Dale, K., & Fox, J. (2014). Media portrayals of romantic relationship maintenance: A content analysis of relational maintenance behaviors on prime time television. Mass Communication & Society, 17, 733-753. doi:10.1080/15205436.2013.846383

Selfies, narcissism, & “psychos”: Setting the record straight

James Franco selfie psychoA recent study on selfies I published with my awesome Ph.D. advisee, Margaret Rooney, was picked up widely in the mainstream media this past week. Not unexpectedly, there was cheeky but accurate news coverage (e.g., CNN, Health,and I liked this video from the Chicago Tribune), appropriately measured coverage (e.g., Jezebel, a fellow blogger at Psychology Today), and awful, panic-stricken, inaccurate drivel accompanying splashy clickbait titles (too many tabloids and blogs to name). (Update: I’m also ecstatic to report it made The Onion.) I’m a bit behind the ball here but, in the name of good science and accuracy, I wanted to provide some answers and clarifications.

The short summary: we used data from an online survey of 800 nationally representative U.S. men aged 18 to 40. The survey asked them about social media behaviors and personality traits among some other items. We were interested in the relationship between some traits (the Dark Triad and self-objectification) and social media behaviors. We found:

  1. Self-objectification and narcissism predicted the amount of time men spend on social networking sites.
  1. Narcissism and psychopathy predicted the number of selfies men post on social networking sites.
  1. Narcissism and self-objectification predicted men’s editing of photos posted to social networking sites.

Here are some commonly asked questions as well as some clarifications about the study.

What is The Dark Triad, anyway? Sounds like a goth band.

These are what we refer to as antisocial personality traits. On the whole, these traits are associated with some pretty nasty behavior. Those high on the Dark Triad are manipulative, callous toward others, and often use deceit to get what they want. They focus on achieving their own goals, even when those are at the expense of other people.

Antisocial traits? But they’re using social media. Isn’t that social?

“Antisocial” doesn’t mean necessarily mean unwilling to associate with others; here it means these traits aren’t prosocial or beneficial for society. Dark Triad individuals are usually pretty adept at getting what their social needs fulfilled, but this is without regard for others. Social networking sites might help them meet those goals. Laura Buffardi and W. Keith Campbell published one of the first pieces on narcissism on social media in 2008, and several others have followed up with similar investigations. I would also recommend Dr. Chris Carpenter’s (2012) study, which identified specific behaviors narcissists exhibit on Facebook; this study that linguistically analyzed Facebook posts for indicators of Dark Triad traits; and Peter Jonason’s fascinating work on Dark Triad traits and interpersonal behavior more generally (e.g., here and here).

So, you found that narcissism predicts selfies. Um, #duh?

Admittedly, I wasn’t as interested in narcissism as I was the Dark Triad trait of Machiavellianism, which is characterized by being manipulative and amoral. I’ve identified relationships between Machiavellianism and other social media behavior, but it didn’t predict men’s selfie behaviors.

So, why is this finding still important? Well, first, just because something seems like common sense or something is commonly accepted doesn’t mean it’s scientifically accurate. Remember the good ol’ days when bacon (hey, protein!) and smoking (so relaxing) were good for you? Scientists have to confirm even the obvious stuff because sometimes there’s more going on than we think (which was the case here when you think about the roles of psychopathy and self-objectification.)

Second, the narcissism finding is a bit more interesting than it seems on face. The common understanding of narcissists is that they are self-absorbed, egocentric, entitled, and think they’re better than everyone else. This is accurate, but there is another important aspect of narcissism: an underlying insecurity. The selfie finding is interesting to me because it implies that narcissistic individuals may post selfies to address this insecurity. As I discuss in this paper, many social networking sites allow people to get comments, “likes,” and other forms of social feedback, and narcissists in particular may rely on these features (or affordances, if you want the scientific term) to make them feel better about themselves.

He posted a selfie! OMG! Is the guy I’m dating a psychopath?

Deep breaths. In this study, we measured the subclinical (i.e., normal) range of these Dark Triad traits. Everyone has a little bit of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism in them. Yes, even you. We can’t draw conclusions from these data about clinical levels of psychopathy or what people would commonly describe as a “psychopath.” So, don’t believe the hype.

This isn’t to say subclinical psychopathy is a desirable trait, however. It is characterized by impulsivity and a lack of empathy for other people. People higher in psychopathy may post selfies online impulsively and without thinking. (It makes sense, too, that we didn’t see a relationship in between psychopathy and editing your selfies given this impulsivity.) Because people higher in psychopathy lack empathy, they might not care if you’re annoyed by all the selfies they post, either.

I told ’em! This generation! All them Facebooks and selfies are turnin’ those kids into narcissists!

This study was a survey, which means we can’t make any causal claims; experimental research is needed to answer those questions. Narcissism could cause selfies, or selfies could cause narcissism, or a third variable could be driving them both. We can only state that we observed a relationship between these things among a nationally representative sample of U.S. men aged 18 to 40.

Well, how many selfies can I post without looking like a total narcissist?

We only looked at selfie posting in this study. We don’t have enough research on how people perceive others’ selfies yet to answer this question. My common sense answer: if you have to stop and ask yourself if you’re posting too many selfies, you are probably posting too many selfies. My suggestion is to ask your close friends what they think about the frequency and content of your selfie posting–and don’t get defensive when they give you honest feedback.

Why did you only look at men, hater? Obviously it’s because you are female and out to get men.

Ah, the stupid, sexist things trolls say. Read the paper. Magically, the answer is there. The longer story:

Trust me, I would have loved to have a nationally representative sample of women as well, but I had no control over what went in the survey. Glamour magazine conducted the survey through a survey company. Most survey companies charge by chunks of time (e.g., 20 minutes) and you get to fill those minutes with questions. As a women’s magazine, of course they had more questions to ask the women, and they filled the women’s 20 minutes with other questions. (You can see the results in their November 2014 issue.) They had some time left over on the men’s side of the survey given they didn’t have to ask men about their thigh gaps and bikini bridges, and so they included the Dark Triad and self-objectification measures. Thus, no data on the Dark Triad or self-objectification for this particular sample of women.

Don’t fret, though. I already have data collected on women, and the results are coming soon. The problem is that a nationally representative sample is very expensive, so I collected data with a convenience sample of college women. This means the sample will be restricted in age, education, and race/ethnicity, unlike the men’s sample. So, we can’t be as confident that these data will represent U.S. women as a whole, but it’s a start in answering questions about women and selfies.

Anyway, that’s all I wanted to add except an additional thanks to Liz Brody, Shaun Dreisbach, and Glamour for making this research possible, and to Jeff Grabmeier, Joe Camoriano, and OSU University Communications for helping with the media traffic. It’s an academic’s dream to work with so many great people in so many different research-related contexts.

Human or computer? It matters if you’re trying to influence users

Currently, there are two general frames of thought in terms of interacting with computers. First is the media equation, conceived by Byron Reeves and Cliff Nass (1996), which later evolved into the computers as social actors (CASA) framework (see Nass & Moon, 2000). The media equation and CASA both suggest that we mindlessly process media and computer-based interactants. Evolutionarily, we’re not designed to cope with this thing that is COMPUTER or TELEVISION, so the argument is that we process those stimuli in the same way we would if they weren’t mediated. For example, a person on a television screen or a partner in text chat are both interpreted as we would any person. The media equation explains a vast array of phenomena, including why horror movies are scary or why we cuss out our laptops when they malfunction–because we respond to media in a very human-like way.

Another perspective on the matter, although conceived as being constrained to a certain context and domain, is Blascovich’s (2002) social influence model in virtual environments. Blascovich suggests that when an computer-mediated entity is believed to be controlled by a human, it is more influential than when it is believed to be controlled by a computer. The perception of human control or agency, then, is key to persuasion in virtual environments. Blascovich offers a second route, however, as he notes that behavioral realism is an important factor that interacts with our perception of agency. If we think we’re interacting with a human, the representation doesn’t necessarily have to be realistic. If we’re interacting with a computer, however, it needs to act realistic and human-like for us to be affected the same way. Blascovich’s model doesn’t really tackle mindless or mindful processing, but it does provide a contrasting expectation to CASA in terms of how we may respond to computer-mediated representations.

Really, these things come down to a type of Turing test. As more interactants (email spammers, robo-dialers, Twitter bots, NPCs, etc.) are controlled by algorithms, it becomes important that we study the conditions in which people are understanding and responding to these entities as humans, and when they are conceiving of them as computers, and what impact that has on communicative outcomes.

As virtual environment researchers, we wanted to test these contrasting predictions to see whether there were differences in how people respond to visual avatars (i.e., virtual representations controlled by humans) or agents (i.e., virtual representations controlled by computers). (Although you’ll note the conspicuous absence of CASA in the paper, as a reviewer insisted that it didn’t fit there…never mind that we discussed the project and our contrasting hypotheses with Cliff…*sigh*) So, we gathered every paper we could find on visual virtual representations that manipulated whether people thought they were interacting with a person or a computer. These included studies that examined differences in physiological responses, experiences such as presence, or persuasive outcomes (e.g., agreeing with a persuasive message delivered by the representation). One study, for example, measured whether people were more physiologically aroused when they believe they were playing a video game against a computer or a human. Another study measured whether people performed a difficult task better if they thought a human or a computer was watching them.

What we found is that on the whole, avatars elicit more influence than agents. These effects are more pronounced when using desktop environments and objective measures such as heart rate. We anticipate that immersive environments may wash out some effects of agency because of higher levels of realism. Another finding was that agency made more of a difference if people were co-participating in a task with the representation, whether that was cooperating or competing. Perhaps having an outcome contingent on the other’s performance made it more meaningful to have a person in that role than a computer. A final finding is that when both conditions were actually controlled by a human–as opposed to both being actually controlled by a computer–agency effects were greater. So, there is something to be said about perhaps a subconscious Turing test, wherein people can somehow tell when they are interacting with computers even though they don’t explicitly think about it.

What This Means for Research Design

Our findings have a lot of relevance to how we interact with computers and humans, but you can read more about that in the paper. What I want to draw attention to is the importance of these findings in terms of research, as they may extend to any number of technological domains. Tech scholars often run experiments where they are having participants text chat or interact in a VE with someone, or they have them playing a video game, and they are testing some sort of influential effect of this interaction. Our findings indicate it is imperative that you clarify who they are interacting with, even if it seems obvious. Second, it is important that they believe it. If you are not clarifying this, or if your participants aren’t buying into your manipulation, you are probably going to be stuck with weird variance in your data that you can’t explain.

The problem is that directly asking people what they thought isn’t the best approach. As Reeves and Nass note in the media equation, if you straight out ask someone if they are treating a computer like a human, they’ll look at you like you’re nuts–but that doesn’t mean they won’t treat the computer like a human. Further, if you ask someone if they thought they were interacting with a person or a computer, they might have never even thought they weren’t interacting with a person–but now that you’ve introduced them to this idea, they’d feel dumb admitting they didn’t know, so they’re going to say “computer.” Or, you’re going to get them reflecting on the task, and they will suddenly recognize that the mechanistic responses did seem an awful lot like a computer, so they will report “computer” although they didn’t recognize this at the time of the task. Thus, direct questions aren’t the greatest way to parse this out.

My advice is to use a funneling technique, preferably in a verbal debriefing. You might start by asking what they thought the study was about, and then, based on the design, ask relevant questions (e.g., ask about their feelings about their text chat partner, or ask if what they thought about the other player’s style of play.) One thing to note is the use of pronouns (“she was…” “he was…”) that indicates at least some acceptance of the interactant as human. Then, keep probing: “Do you think your partner/opponent/etc. was acting strange at any point, or did they do anything you wouldn’t normally expect?” This is a broad enough question that shouldn’t immediately point to the partner being a computer, but might get them thinking in that direction. If they don’t say anything about it being a computer, I’d say you can be pretty confident they bought the manipulation and believed they were interacting with a person. You can wrap up with more direct questions: “At any time, did you think you were interacting with a computer rather than a human?” The feedback you get will also be helpful in designing future studies or scripts to eliminate this variance.

You can check out the paper through the link below:

Fox, J., Ahn, S. J., Janssen, J. H., Yeykelis, L., Segovia, K. Y., & Bailenson, J. N. (in press). A meta-analysis quantifying the effects of avatars and agents on social influence. Human-Computer Interaction. doi: 10.1080/07370024.2014.921494

Testing gamification: Effects of virtual leaderboards on women’s math performance

Leaderboard environment croppedGamification is one of those tech trends that exploded on the scene. TED talks, mass market books, love letters in esteemed publications, and all that jazz. But scientific evidence? Not so much. The problem with gamification is the huge gaping hole where empirical support should be. See, there’s not a lot of actual scientific research on the effects of gamification, and what’s there isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. (Check out the meta-analysis by Hamari, Koivisto, & Sarsa, 2014).

I’ve worked with a couple of grad students on some gamification-related projects, focusing specifically on the more popular applications of leaderboards and badges. Kate Christy and I were curious whether leaderboards may trigger stereotype threat or social comparison. We placed women in a virtual classroom, where they saw a leaderboard dominated by women’s names, a leaderboard dominated by men’s names, or no leaderboard. Stereotype threat would suggest women would perform worse after viewing the male-dominated board; social comparison approaches would suggest that women would perform worse after viewing the female-dominated boards. After viewing the board, they took a math quiz.

Our study revealed that women performed worse on the math quiz after seeing the female-dominated board compared to the male-dominated board. Yet, the female-dominated board promoted higher levels of academic identification than the male-dominated board or seeing no board at all. In terms of application, these findings are a little frustrating as they suggest female-dominated leaderboards are bad for performance, yet good for academic identification, and the opposite is true for male-dominated leaderboards. Clearly more research is needed than this to determine the effectiveness of leaderboards among different populations and in different contexts, but it does provide a cautionary note.

You can check out the full article for free here until September 30.

This isn’t to say gamification doesn’t hold promise; it is to suggest that dropping proven educational methods in the name of fun–without any evidence of its effectiveness–is a bad idea. It’s also to suggest that gamification is a really broad term, and some forms may be better than others. And just like any treatment or method–especially with educational outcomes hanging in the balance–scientific evidence should precede practice.

Making conference travel affordable: Tips & tricks

Traveling to conferences can be a continuing financial burden for academics. There’s also the added twist that often times, the locations people are most excited about are also the most expensive. ICA 2014 in London exceeded all expectations and was a great conference—but I also didn’t take the time to plan in advance and ended up spending way more money than I had budgeted for (even worse, most of it was on bad meals, also due to a lack of planning.) Here are a few tips for making work travel slightly less paralyzing for your checkbook (that may come in handy for last minute spring break planning too–who knows.)

Find friends. As soon as you know you’re going, sound the alarms for potential roommates and/or travel partners. This is the easiest way to cut down on hotel and travel expenses (especially if you can drive instead of fly) and, of course, it makes conferencing more fun. If you have friends in your destination city, see if they’re willing to put up with a houseguest for a couple of days.

Check your discounts. Sure, you get a conference hotel discount…but even then, conference hotels can be far outside of a normal travel budget. Few of us have the luxury of free hotel stays thanks to accumulated travel points, but sometimes there are benefits we forget about attached to other affiliations. Sometimes being a student is enough to get you a discount. I find my AAA card indispensable not only as a driver but also as a traveler, because many hotels and attractions (e.g., museums, historical sites) will give you an additional discount. I also belong to two social organizations that also get discounts on rental cars. Of course, always compare these prices with what you can find on bargain travel websites.

Do your research. Before you start digging, find out the basics about your destination by looking at travel sites. How far away is it from your school? Could you drive, or must you fly? What airports can you fly into? Is there a public transportation system? How is the public transit access from the airport to the hotel or from your hotel to the conference site? Are there affordable dining options around the hotel (and will they be open)? Don’t forget to check out the materials assembled by the sponsoring association–sometimes they have helpful hints there, such as leads on cheap transportation or staying in cheap campus housing for the conference.

Lodging. A little inconvenience can mean huge savings at conferences. It’s great to be able to take the elevator to talks and stay indoors when conferences are inexplicably scheduled in miserable climates, but you can often save hundreds of dollars outside of the conference hotel. For ICA in San Francisco several years ago, a colleague was able to book a room for us in a hotel less than a block away from the conference for over $100 cheaper a night, and it was just as nice as the conference hotel.

If you are staying for an extended period (e.g., for a preconference), you might search out non-hotel alternatives through,, or other websites that lease out apartment-style living spaces. These sites usually get you access to a full kitchen, which means you can minimize your food budget by feeding on cereal, peanut butter, frozen burritos, and/or pasta.

If you are driving to the conference and have access to a car, this can free you up even more. If you’re in a suburban area, staying at a hotel closer to the highway will often net you the free parking, free breakfast, and free wifi that is a rare trifecta for conference hotels. Typically you can pay a small fee ($10 or less a day) to get a microwave and mini-fridge in your room, which can cut food costs considerably.

Transportation. At a recent ICA in Phoenix, I was amazed how many people didn’t realize that there was a train that ran from the airport to within a couple blocks from the hotel. I spent $4 round trip; I heard round trip taxi fare was about 10 times that. From what I’ve observed, this usually isn’t a secret: the conference organizations often advertise these options in newsletters and on the website. Take the time to skim the materials your associations lovingly assemble and pick up some travel pointers.

If you’re driving to your destination, don’t forget to factor in tolls and parking. I have stayed at highway hotels and used public transportation or driven to conference hotels; even when I have to pay $30 to park at the conference hotel as I did at NCA 2012 in Ughlando, though, my off-site lodging option was still considerably cheaper (especially when factoring in the other amenities like a full kitchen).

Food & drink. The easiest way to save money on food is to eat in your hotel room. When looking at your hotel options, check to see if they offer a free breakfast, mini-fridge, microwave, or coffeemaker. I eat constantly, so I typically pack food (given groceries are rarities near conference sites). Cereal is an easy breakfast and/or snack. Bagels are great for breakfast and can also host lunch with some peanut butter (they also travel better than crackers or bread.) Energy bars are convenient and don’t take up a lot of space. Add some apples, pears, or other sturdy fruits and you should make it through the week without starving or scurvy. If you have access to a grocery, you can expand your repertoire from hotel room grilled cheese and coffemaker ramen to frozen meals, depending on the presence of an iron, microwave, and/or mini-fridge in your room.

For a caff-fiend like me, a coffeemaker is indispensable for my conference productivity. Nothing gets my goat like having to fork over $4 in the conference hotel lobby for awful Starbucks. Over the course of 3-4 days, those little expenditures add up (not to mention the inevitable eons-long line in between morning panels.)

At the conference, ask around about the evening parties sponsored by schools. Some provide free food or drink tickets, but usually these only last for the early arrivals. If you stroll in fashionably late, you’ll only witness the scavenged remains of various crudité and feel a deep sense of disappointment.

As an eater (i.e., someone who likes to eat frequently and awesomely; please don’t confuse me for a foodie), my favorite part of conference travel is finding good noms. I consult several food sites (like, my life coach) in addition to destination guides to find feasible and affordable options. This research helped me track down a food truck gathering four blocks from ICA in Phoenix, a hole in the wall with decent $3 margaritas in San Francisco, and several spectacular food adventures in various back alleys at NCA New Orleans (including the Green Goddess, which was bizarre in all the right ways). When in doubt, ask a few locals or a hotel employee (not the front desk or concierge, however.) After several disappointing meals, I asked a bellhop in London where he liked to eat nearby, and he told us about a Thai restaurant that was hidden in the upstairs of a nearby pub. The food was amazing–far more delicious and affordable than anything else we found within walking distance of the hotel.

Entertainment. Occasionally you are lucky enough to have time to do something purely for fun. As mentioned before, some attractions will offer discounts for students or people with a college ID. There are also military discounts, senior discounts, and membership discounts (AAA) for places, so always ask. If you are plan on hitting up several attractions, you might see if there is a discounted pass, but be realistic about your availability. If you’re conferencing you may only have time to see one or two things, and separate admissions would be cheaper than a pass. You can also investigate the tours and offerings assembled by conference organizers, but I find that organizing on your own is usually cheaper.

As far as socializing goes, the hotel lobby bar is often a great place to run into people and strike up conversations, but it is also a notorious money vacuum. Beyond the school-hosted parties frequented by attendees, often there are interest group or graduate student organization happy hours at off-site locations. Take advantage of them. Often conference hotels are in downtown areas, and your bar and club options can be expensive. If you are looking for some nightlife, do a little online research and see if you can’t uncover a less expensive alternative.

Do math, and remember that time = money. Now that I’ve given you all these tips on how to conserve your funds, let me add one caveat. Saving money is important, but some things are also worth the extra money to save yourself time and frustration. If public transportation requires a shuttle to a train to a bus to a trolley with 30 minute layovers in between each stop, sometimes it’s worth it to fork over the extra money for a taxi. If you make this allowance, though, remember you’ll need to tighten the purse strings in another part of your budget.

Romantic attachment and the dangers of social media, Part 2

As promised, here is the second segment on attachment and the dangers of social media. This article is focused on breakups and how people use social media (and perhaps need not to) in the wake of a breakup:

Reality check: Media misrepresentation of the sexualized avatar study

This morning started off with another media-induced facepalm. Thanks to Owen Good at Kotaku for drawing this to our attention.

One of the downsides to being a scientist is having your work misrepresented in the media. It’s bad enough when you can tell they write a report or story based on another story that’s based on another story. Worse is when they bring in “experts” to sensationalize it (especially when they don’t bother contacting the actual researchers for an accurate statement.) Fox News aired a segment on my recently published study on the negative effects of sexualized avatars. Here is what is wrong about it.

1. They say we studied “young girls” and the discussion is around children. We studied female adults (none younger than 18), which is clearly noted in the article.

2. At another point, they say we studied “gamers.” Video game play varied among this sample; participants reported playing between 0 and 25 hours of games a week (M = 1.29, SD = 3.70). Also, they were not asked if they self-described as gamers.

3. Participants did not choose avatars for this study; they were randomly assigned to assure the validity of the manipulation. (Read this if you don’t understand the importance and implications of random assignment for experiments.) I am researching choice in other studies because there could be a self-selection bias in play when it comes to gaming (e.g., women who self-objectify may be more or less likely to choose sexualized avatars).

4. The simulation was not a video game. It was an interaction with objects in a fully immersive virtual environment and a social interaction with a male confederate represented by an avatar. Further research with gaming variables is necessary because those sorts of elements change outcomes in unexpected ways, as my grad student Mao Vang and I recently found when we had White participants play a game alongside Black avatars.

5. What is most wrong is that their “expert” is not a scientist or even a gaming researcher, but a self-described life coach. I looked her up and she has zero notes on her website about her scientific education or experience. Rather, it is a business site populated with slogans like “Let’s Get it, #Go and MAKE THAT DOUGH!” (Random hashtags, arbitrary capitalization, and outdated slang all preserved from the original.) There’s no indication that she knows anything about science, virtual environments or video games, or girls’/women’s development or psychology. It’s clear from her interview that she did not read the article–I love that Owen Good at Kotaku points out that she swipes lines from another journalist’s writeup at Time.

Perhaps the most egregious transgression is when she puts words in our mouths with this gem: “But they say that this is, like, even worse than watching Miley Cyrus twerk.” NO, WE DIDN’T SAY THAT. NOR WOULD WE. EVER. That statement was made by the Time reporter and was rightfully not attributed to us.

Such are the frustrations of the scientist.

The consequences of wearing sexualized avatars

Given the recent media attention, I figured it would probably be wise to give a rundown of our experiment recently published in Computers in Human Behavior on the negative consequences of wearing sexualized avatars in a fully immersive virtual environment. Although several media sources are framing this as a study involving video games, there was no gaming element to it (although I expect the findings to apply to video games, there are different variables to consider in those settings).

A fully immersive environment. The user is in a head-mounted display (HMD) and can only see the virtual world, which changes naturally as she moves.

A fully immersive environment. The user is in a head-mounted display (HMD) and can only see the virtual world, which changes naturally as she moves.

This study was conducted while I was still at Stanford working in the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. I conceived the study as a followup to a previous study whose results had confounded me. In that study (published in Sex Roles), men and women were exposed to stereotypical or nonstereotypical female virtual agents, and we found that stereotypical agents promoted more sexism and rape myth acceptance than nonstereotypical agents. I was surprised because we found no difference between men’s and women’s attitudes. Thus, I wanted to investigate further to see how virtual representations of women affected women in the real world.

In the current experiment, we placed women in either sexualized  or nonsexualized avatar bodies. We used participants’ photographs (taken several weeks before for a presumably unrelated study) to build photorealistic representations of themselves in the virtual environment. Thus, when a woman entered the VE, she saw her face or another person’s face attached to a sexualized or nonsexualized avatar body.

Atomic II avatars

Avatars courtesy of Complete Characters database.

In the virtual environment, women performed movements in front of a mirror so that they could observe the virtual body and experience embodiment (i.e., feel like they were really inside of the avatar’s body). They had a brief interaction with a male avatar afterwards and then we measured their state self-objectification (through the Twenty Statements Test, which is simply 20 blanks starting with “I am ______”). Then, we told them they would be participating in a second, unrelated study. They were allowed to pick a number that “randomly” redirected them to an online study. All participants were redirected to “Group C” which was framed as a survey on social attitudes. The rape myth acceptance items were masked in a long survey with other items.

We found that women who embodied a sexualized avatar showed significantly greater self-objectification than women who embodied a nonsexualized avatar. Furthermore, and counter to predictions, women who embodied an avatar that was sexualized and looked like them showed greater rape myth acceptance.

This second finding was puzzling; I thought seeing oneself in a sexualized avatar would make participants more sympathetic. Our best explanation was that perhaps that seeing oneself sexualized triggered a sense of guilt and self-blame that then promoted more acceptance of rape myths.

Since this study I have conducted two other studies (both using nonimmersive environments to make sure that it is not just the high-end technology yielding these results) that support these findings. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested in those papers.

You can find media coverage of this study at the links below:

*Original story by Cynthia McKelvey for Stanford News Service (also posted at PhysOrg)

* Video Games’ Sexual Double Standard May Have Real-World Impact by Yannick LeJacq at NBC News

*How Using Sexualized Avatars in Video Games Changes Women by Eliana Dockterman at Time

*Using a Sexy Video Game Avatar Makes Women Objectify Themselves by Shaunacy Ferro at Popular Science

*The Scientific Connection Between Sexist Video Games and Rape Culture by Joseph Bernstein at Buzzfeed

Predictors of Facebook stalking your romantic partner

Social networking sites provide unprecedented access into the lives of our friends, family members, strangers, and current and former romantic partners. Much of my research investigates whether or not this is a good thing. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)

In a recent study with Dr. Katie Warber at Wittenberg University, we explored how an individual’s attachment style and level of uncertainty about their relationship (current or recently terminated) predicted their use of Facebook to “cyberstalk” their partners. (Academically, we prefer the term “interpersonal electronic surveillance.”)

Attachment theory suggests that our adult relationships are influenced by our relationships with our parents as infants. Depending on how that bonding process went, we experience varying levels of avoidance (the degree to which we seek or avoid close relationships) and anxiety (the degree to which we are uneasy or overly concerned about our close relationships). Individuals who are low on avoidance and anxiety are considered secure in their relationships. Those who are high on avoidance and low on anxiety are dismissive. Low on avoidance and high anxiety individuals are preoccupied, and those high on both are deemed fearful. These attachment styles predict a number of behaviors within romantic relationships.

In this study, we looked at both people currently in relationships and those in recently terminated relationships. We also examined the role of uncertainty. Surprisingly, uncertainty about the relationship did not play a role in surveillance. Rather, we found that preoccupied and fearful attachment styles engaged in significantly more surveillance.

Given preoccupieds are insecure about the relationship and low on avoidance (hence, a tendency to be clingy), we expected them to have the highest levels of Facebook stalking. It is interesting that fearfuls were also higher, however, given they tend to be high on avoidance. One possible explanation is that even though they are getting information about the partner, Facebook stalking enables fearfuls to still avoid direct interaction with the partner.

There remains a lot to explore with attachment theory, romantic relationships, and social media. I hope to have some more findings in this area available soon. In the meantime, you can check out the article (linked below) or oft-snarky media coverage at Slate and Jezebel. There is also a brief writeup and interview available at United Academics.

Fox, J., & Warber, K. M. (in press). Social networking sites in romantic relationships: Attachment, uncertainty, and partner surveillance on Facebook. To appear in CyberPsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking.

Sexism in online video games

I was a tomboy as a child and was always looking for ways to invade boys’ spaces because that’s where I wanted to be. While the other girls played hopscotch and jumped rope at recess, I crashed the boys’ soccer games. I maintained the most enviable baseball card collection in the neighborhood.

Of course, this was at the age where boys hadn’t been socialized to sexually harass just yet; girls were just icky. And, if I met with any protest, I could just issue a good whooping and earn boys’ respect or have them cower in fear. As I grew up, however, I realized it was becoming more and more difficult to be a part of male spaces. After all, I wasn’t allowed to join Boy Scouts or the baseball team. Boys evolved from being my friends to having their own groups, their own birthday parties, their own shared experiences and secrets and rituals that no longer included me.

Nowadays, those exclusive spaces have changed to include online video games, as Taylor (2006), Yee (2006), Gray (2012), and Salter and Blodgett (2012) have established. In online VGs, however, there are additional factors, notably deindividuation (in part through anonymity) and the lack of punishment. Although some have pushed back against the idea of anonymity, the social identity model of deindividuation effects (SIDE) makes an argument for its role in the part of harassment although it is not required. Essentially, SIDE argues that due to the lack of individualized cues in computer-mediated communication (CMC), we defer to group identities. Additionally, social identity theory suggests that we elevate our own ingroup at the expense of the outgroup. In the gaming world, masculinity is valued and thus men promote this salient aspect of their identity. Elevating the masculine identity means demoting and demeaning outgroups, particularly anyone that can be stereotyped as unmasculine (e.g., women, non-hetero men).

Following several publicized incidents of harassment of female game players, graduate student Wai Yen Tang (check out his blog here) approached me to discuss the nature of masculinity in gaming spaces. He was awash in study ideas, and after launching an experiment, he was interested in gathering survey data from a broad sample of gamers.

With the help of several game players and scholars, we developed a list of sexist beliefs and stereotypes about women who play video games. For example, many players don’t believe women have the skills to play at a high level, so they insist that women have had their boyfriends level up characters for them or have exchanged sexual favors for game currency. Others believe that women only play video games to socialize or to make pretty avatars rather than to dominate, kill things, or earn achievements.

In our survey, we asked participants to complete a number of items relating to game play and personality traits. What we discovered is that the amount of game play and even the respondent’s sex was irrelevant to the degree to which they endorsed sexist beliefs about female game players. Rather, the respondent’s social dominance orientation (i.e., how much they believe that some groups are superior and others are inferior) and level of conformity to some types of masculine norms (the desire for power over women and the need for heterosexual self-presentation) predicted video game sexism.

The Video Game Sexism Scale is available in the article.

Fox, J., & Tang, W. Y. (2013). Sexism in online video games: The role of conformity to masculine norms and social dominance orientation. Computers in Human Behavior.


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