Can Second Life make health a first priority? : examining exercise efficacy and body image through priming theory and the Proteus effect
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[ACCESS RESTRICTED TO THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI AT REQUEST OF AUTHOR.] The present study examined prosocial and antisocial effects of avatar embodiment in a virtual world on health and body image in emerging adult women. Decades of research have determined that idealized representation of women's bodies in traditional media contexts has detrimental effects on female self-concept and that body image and also induces self-objectification. Because these images of women are a part of Western media and culture, beauty and body ideals are a part of cognitive schemata for many men and women. Additionally, priming effects research has demonstrated that it is possible to activate positive and negative cognitive nodes or schemata in both traditional and new media contexts. In fact, Perloff (2014) has suggested that social media offer a unique locus for body image exploration, and these virtual applications may reinforce negative body image and associated behaviors. By contrast, other studies have found that virtual environments may induce positive health outcomes. However, experimental studies of the effects of virtual settings on health and body image are few. The present study adds to the existing literature on emerging adult women, body image, health efficacy, and avatar embodiment in a virtual world. In a post-test only experimental design, emerging adult women (N=114) were randomly assigned to a virtual condition either focused on physical activity or physical appearance in the online world Second Life. Additionally, participants were randomly assigned to either a photograph prime or no photograph prime condition to examine whether priming them to focus on their own physical appearance would influence the effects of avatar embodiment on their body image and health-related attitudes and beliefs. These constructs were investigated in light of priming theory -- the activation of existing schema after exposure to a stimulus -- as well as the Proteus effect -- or the idea that avatar embodiment in a virtual environment may induce behavior changes. The present study finds that embodiment of an objectified avatar had no significant effects on levels of self-objectification or body awareness. However, various combinations of a photograph or no photograph prime and embodiment of a physically active avatar had significant effects on levels of exercise efficacy and exercise motivations. The following manuscript discusses these results in light of existing research on body image, emerging adult women, virtual embodiment, priming theory, and the Proteus effect.
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