Open Access
Kim, Youjeong
Graduate Program:
Mass Communications
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 21, 2010
Committee Members:
  • S. Shyam Sundar, Dissertation Advisor
  • S. Shyam Sundar, Committee Chair
  • Mary Beth Oliver, Committee Member
  • Fuyuan Shen, Committee Member
  • Roxanne Louise Parrott, Committee Member
  • health communication
  • customization
  • virtual identity
  • Avatar
  • self-preservation
As health communication campaigns enter the realm of games and virtual worlds, an important affordance is the ability to navigate mediated environments through avatars. Our investigation explores the psychological significance of virtual-world avatars on real-world outcomes. In particular, it explores the role played by avatar customization on users’ self-preservation behaviors. Participants (N = 95) in a between-subjects experiment were randomly assigned to one of four conditions: a desired avatar condition in which users were directed to customize their avatars to reflect their ideal, desired selves; and an actual avatar condition in which users were directed to customize their avatars to be resemble their actual selves; an assigned attractive avatar condition in which the user was assigned an attractive avatar by the system; and an assigned unattractive avatar condition. The first two conditions were used to test propositions derived from the agency model of customization whereas the latter two were inspired by behavior confirmation theory. Behavior confirmation theory predicts that avatar users’ behaviors would be influenced by others’ expectations raised by the physical appearance of the avatar. Therefore, an attractive avatar would motivate users to undertake behaviors that would help them keep up this appearance in real life. On the other hand, the agency model of customization would argue that it is not the attractiveness of the avatar’s appearance but the sense of agency arising from the active construction of one’s avatar that would motivate self-preserving behaviors. Therefore, this study attempts to reveal the key factors driving a user’s self-preservation motivations by testing these two competing theories to predict the user’s behavior pursuant to avatar use. This study yielded a significant effect for avatar customization on motivations for self-preservation. Participants who customized their avatars indicated that they would spend a significantly higher percentage of their time maintaining good health, compared to participants who were assigned avatars. Furthermore, this effect was mediated by sense of agency. This study also found that customizing one’s avatar to resemble a desired ideal self promotes visualization of his/her ideal body, which is positively related to prevention-focused sense of self-preservation. We also found that customizing one’s avatar to resemble one’s actual self increases perceived risk, which is negatively related to promotion-focused sense of self-preservation due to reductions in self-efficacy. Overall, the findings support the agency model of customization over behavior confirmation theory. The key contribution of this study is the demonstration that psychological benefits obtained from avatar customization can be leveraged for promoting users’ wellness. Theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed, followed by an outline of the study’s limitations and directions for future research.