The Use and Potential of Digital Self-Representation in Risk Communications

This essay (full title:  "Don't Hurt My Avatar:  The Use and Potential of Digital Self-Representation in Risk Communications) by Perry Parks (Michigan State University), Rosanna Cruz (University of Georgia), and Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn (University of Georgia), was originally published in the International Journal of Robots, Education, and Arts (IJREA) in August 2014.

Persuasive messages are stronger if they are personally relevant to the audience, and over the decades, risk communicators have shaped risk messages to make them as personal as technology has allowed. Personalization began with crude market segmentation, which developed into algorithm-based computer message tailoring based on the illusion of self-representation. With the development of digital avatars and virtual environments, technology has allowed communicators to truly personalize risk messages by immersing individuals into situations where the risks, and their consequences, are manifest. Avatars personalize risk by simulating harm to digital representations with which people directly identify, making future consequences appear imminent by realistically speeding up time, and transforming attitude and intention into behavioral change through effects in which people carry the characteristics and actions of their avatars into the physical world. This paper traces the history of risk communication through self-representation, outlines uses and the potential of avatars in risk communication, and suggests possibilities for digital self-representation in robots. Limitations and ethical implications of digital self-representation are discussed.

1. Introduction A young woman questioning her dietary habits hears fat splat onto a scale and sees herself gain weight in accelerated time as she drinks a can of soda every day for two years. A man indifferent to the environment feels the pull of a chainsaw and listens as the blade eats through a tree trunk, then hears the tree thud on the ground. An adolescent creates a digital image of the person s/he wants to be and becomes motivated to exercise to come closer to reaching that ideal. These are all virtual experiences that people have lived via digital worlds through virtual self-representations known as avatars [1], and those experiences have changed people’s attitudes and behaviors toward aspects of their lives including their diet [2], climate change [3, 4], exercise [5], personal finance [6], and numerous other personal and environmental risk factors. Effective risk communication accurately conveys the presence, type, and degree of danger people may face while simultaneously helping them to appropriately manage their perception of, and individual behavioral responses to, risks [7]. The most effective risk communication incorporates highly personal components because research has shown that people respond positively to risks they feel susceptible to and can do something about [8]. To this extent, using photorealistic avatars to represent the self in a virtual world to deliver a risk message may be one of the most advanced forms of involving highly personal components in a message. In the current essay, the term “self-representation” is defined broadly to trace the evolution of messaging efforts that aim to influence individuals by tailoring and personalizing messages based on people’s traits and/or shared characteristics. This essay reviews the origins of self-representation in communication and follows the scholarly and technical evolution of self-representation in risk communication, particularly the use of digital avatars in online or virtual environments. We discuss how message tailoring in risk communication relates to two seminal theoretical frameworks in persuasion and behavior change: Petty and Cacioppo’s elaboration likelihood model, which suggests that people will pay more attention to messages that are relevant to them [9], and Bandura’s social cognitive theory, which, among other predictions, posits that people are more likely to change behavior if they feel a sense of “self-efficacy,” or perceive high levels of confidence in carrying out specific behaviors, even in the face of challenges [10]. Using digital devices to create virtual simulations that vividly portray future consequences of present choices, avatars may be used to increase the personal relevancy of risk communication scenarios by placing individuals in health, safety, or other risk environments and having them witness the consequences of their choices. With the ability to transcend spatial and temporal boundaries by placing people directly in risky situations to virtually experience potential long-term effects, avatars can help solve three major challenges of risk communication: the personalization of risk [11], the demonstration of the imminence of risk, and the transformation of risk knowledge and attitude into real-world behavioral changes. Technology enabling these interventions is becoming increasingly sophisticated, available, and affordable, and therefore increasingly accessible to general audiences.


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