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«Chapter 12 The Experience of Presence in Persuasive Virtual Environments Jesse Fox, Katheryn R. Christy, and Mao H. Vang The examination of presence ...»

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Chapter 12

The Experience of Presence in Persuasive

Virtual Environments

Jesse Fox, Katheryn R. Christy, and Mao H. Vang

The examination of presence is important, as previous studies have shown that the subjective

experience of presence can impact the effectiveness of virtual treatments (Villani, Riva, &

Riva, 2007) and the degree to which these stimuli translate into real world behavior (e.g.,

Fox, Bailenson, & Binney, 2009; Persky & Blascovich, 2008; Price & Anderson, 2007). In

this chapter, we will explore three components of presence (self, social, and spatial; Lee,

2004) and how they relate to persuasion in virtual environments. Relevant theoretical approaches including media richness and Blascovich’s (2002) model of social influence in virtual environments will be discussed. We will also elaborate on studies examining the experience of presence in virtual environments designed with various persuasive goals, including health (e.g., Girard, Turcotte, Bouchard, & Girard, 2009; Skalski & Tamborini, 2007), advertising (e.g., Li, Daugherty, & Biocca, 2002; Shin & Shin, 2011; Yim, Cicchirillo, & Drumwright, 2012), education (e.g., Allmendinger, 2010; Caudle, 2013; Mikropoulos & Strouboulis, 2004), and work collaboration (e.g., Bente, Rüggenberg, Krämer, & Eschenburg, 2008; Ratan & Hasler, 2010). We will draw upon this literature to develop practical suggestions for designing virtual environments to cultivate presence while also achieving persuasive goals.


Presence; Persuasion; Virtual Environments; Social Influence; Avatars.

1. Introduction to Chapter 12 Homebound, Joe visits with his doctor in an avatar-based virtual world. Given the avatar’s brief, generic answers, Joe has his doubts about whether the person he is communicating with is really his doctor or if it is a pre-programmed bot. Skeptical, Joe opts to ignore the advice offered by the doctor’s avatar.

Amanda joins a virtual conference hoping to convince a client to hire her to design a new office building. The potential client, however, keeps complaining that the lag and quality of the video feed makes Amanda’s presentation difficult to follow; the client says it feels like she’s transmitting from another planet. Amanda is unable to persuade the client to hire her.

Max visits an online retailer to buy a new pair of glasses. The website encourages him to link up with his webcam so that he can see what the glasses will look like on his own face.

Max is disturbed by his disembodied presence on the screen and the odd, floating glasses on his virtual face. He leaves the website, convinced he would rather visit a shop in person.

As virtual environments become more commonplace for communication across persuasive contexts such as health, work collaboration, and advertising, it is important to assess how the experience of presence in these environments may influence persuasive outcomes. Self, social, and spatial presence can be important determinants in whether a source succeeds or fails in persuading a targeted user. In this chapter we will discuss how various conceptualizations of presence are tied to persuasive outcomes. We will then outline theoretical frameworks that may be implemented in the study of presence in persuasive environments. Finally, we will address several contexts in which presence has been demonstrated to influence persuasive outcomes and discuss what these findings indicate for the design of successful persuasive virtual environments.

2. Defining Presence in the Context of Persuasion Presence has been defined in a variety of ways across the literature (Lombard & Ditton, 1997;

Witmer & Singer, 1998), sometimes being referred to as telepresence (e.g., Minsky, 1980;

Schloerb, 1995), virtual presence (Sheridan, 1992), or mediated presence (Biocca, Kim, & Choi, 2001). For the purposes of evaluating the utility of virtual environments for persuasive means, Lee’s (2004) clarification is useful. Lee (2004) defines presence as “a psychological state in which virtual…objects are experienced as actual objects in either sensory or nonsensory ways” (p. 37). This overall construct can be further divided into three types of presence: self, social, and spatial.

Self-presence occurs when users experience their avatar (or other virtual selfrepresentation) as if it were their actual self, physically or cognitively (Lee, 2004). Selfpresence may entail a feeling of embodying an avatar and feeling its body as one’s own physical form (Ratan & Hasler, 2010). Self-presence may also be experienced cognitively as identification with a character. In this case, individuals feel as though they share the character’s self (Klimmt, Hefner, & Vorderer, 2009). Self-presence may be important to persuasion because users need to feel connected to their virtual presence. Otherwise, they may not care what outcomes their virtual presence experiences. Alternatively, if users do not feel linked with their avatar or virtual self-presence, they may be resistant to persuasion because they are merely observing, rather than participating in, the experience.

The second category of presence, social presence, was first elaborated by Short, Williams, and Christie (1976). Lee (2004) defines social presence as a psychological and physical awareness of other social actors in the virtual environment. The representations of these social actors may be vary in their level of anthropomorphism (e.g., a virtual human as opposed to a virtual dog; Nowak, 2004), physical realism (e.g., a virtual human could look realistic or cartoon-like), and behavioral realism (e.g., a virtual human could emote naturally or unrealistically; Blascovich et al., 2002). These representations can be controlled by a human (an avatar), a computer (an agent), or a hybrid of the two (e.g., a human controls speech while the computer controls the representation’s animations). It is also important to note that social presence does not require the user and the social actor to be virtually colocated, or even communicating simultaneously. Lee uses the example of reading a letter from a dear friend to suggest a situation in which social presence is felt, but the communication is asynchronous. In regard to persuasion, Allport (1985) suggests that human actions and psychological experiences are shaped by the actual, imagined, and implied presence of others; that is, people behave in accordance with some degree of social influence.

Thus, the degree to which others perceive social presence in a virtual environment will likely shape persuasive outcomes. Low social presence may therefore motivate users to question the credibility of the source, which would be detrimental to persuasive efforts.

Finally, spatial or environmental presence is a psychological state in which people feel like they are physically located within a virtual environment and interacting with virtual objects (Schubert, 2009; Wirth et al., 2007). Lee (2004) originally conceptualized this interaction of the body with virtual objects as physical presence, but his conceptualization was too limiting for many scholars. Subsequently, the concept has been expanded to include the virtual environment more holistically. Spatial presence may be key to persuasion because it may promote more natural interaction with the user’s surroundings. If users do not experience spatial presence, they may not be immersed enough in the virtual environment to attend to the persuasive message. Alternatively, low spatial presence may degrade the user experience, which may negativity skew the user’s response to the persuasive message.

There are a wide range of factors that have been suggested to impact an individual’s overall experience of presence. Witmer, Jerome, and Singer (2005) have theorized that the experience of presence is predicated upon two fundamental psychological states, involvement and immersion, and suggest that there are four factors that significantly affect the experience of presence. Control refers to the user’s control over the virtual environment, whereas the sensory dimension encompasses features such as modality (e.g., visual, audio) and environmental richness. Distraction refers to the degree to which distractions (both internal and external) exist. Finally, realism consists of not only the degree to which the virtual environment adheres to real-world features (e.g., shadows reacting correctly to light sources), but also the meaningfulness of the experience. Lombard and Ditton (1997) also provide a highly-elaborated list of formal (e.g., image fidelity, aural features, interactivity), content (e.g., social realism, nature of the task), and individual (e.g., prior experience, willingness to suspend disbelief) factors that may play a role in the experience of presence.

In terms of empirical research, several factors have been found to influence the experience of the various dimensions of presence. Perceptions of self-presence, for example, tend to increase when there is a high degree of visual similarity between the real self and the virtual self (Bailenson, Blascovich, & Guadagno, 2008; Ratan, Santa Cruz, & Vorderer, 2007), and when avatars speak with a user’s voice (Aymerich-Franch, Karutz, & Bailenson, 2012).

Perceptions of social presence, on the other hand, are increased when participants can interact with a virtual actor (Skalski & Tamborini, 2007), when participants have a previous relationship with a virtual actor (Bailenson et al., 2004), and when participants perceive a virtual actor as similar to themselves (Lee & Nass, 2003). A virtual actor’s tone of voice can also influence perceptions of presence. Sources whose tone of voice matches the content of their words are perceived to be more socially present than those with tone/content inconsistencies, and sources whose voices are extroverted in tone are perceived to be more socially present than those whose voices are introverted (Lee & Nass, 2003).

Finally, recent research on spatial presence has suggested that there are two steps involved in a user experiencing spatial presence: the construction of a mental model of the virtual environment and the suppression of external cues that signal the artificiality of the virtual environment (Hofer, Wirth, Kuehne, Schramm, & Sacau, 2012). The first stage is influenced by the user’s attention to the virtual environment and, to a lesser degree, their innate ability to create visual representations of the virtual environment in their mind. The second stage relies primarily on the degree to which a user is involved with the virtual environment, which was found to be strongly linked to the amount of interest the user had in the content found in the virtual world (Hofer et al., 2012).

3. Theoretical Frameworks for Examining Presence in Persuasive Environments

3.1 Media Richness The concept of media richness was derived from Short et al.’s (1976) exploration of the experience of social presence in various forms of telecommunication and incorporates both a medium-based and user-based conceptualization. Media richness refers to the sensory quality of a medium and how it is experienced by the user (Trevino, Lengel, & Daft, 1987). Daft, Lengel, and Trevino (1987) assessed media richness by comparing mediated and face-to-face communication on four criteria: 1) immediate feedback; 2) transmission of multiple cues, such as nonverbal communication or graphics; 3) language variety; and 4) personal focus. In general, richer media are predicted to be more effective in managing equivocal or complex tasks, and greater richness has been associated with better outcomes (e.g., Scheck, Allmendinger, & Hamann, 2008; Timmerman & Kruepke, 2006).

In terms of persuasion, the original postulation of media richness suggests that richer media create more social presence, which can lead to more persuasion. For example, Rockmann and Northcraft (2008) found that media richness influences trust, which in turn affects levels of cooperation. Other studies have found that existing relationships, goals, and strategies predict the use of more or less rich media in persuasive interactions, suggesting that higher levels of media richness are not always desired or necessary to achieve persuasive outcomes (Schmitz & Fulk, 1991; Wilson, 2003). At this stage, further research is necessary to ascertain whether relationships exist between the medium-based conceptualizations of media richness and user-based conceptualizations of media richness (i.e., social presence), and whether these are able to predict the effectiveness of persuasive messages.

3.2 Computers as Social Actors According to Nass and colleagues’ computers as social actors (CASA) framework (Nass, Fogg, & Moon, 1996; Nass & Steuer, 1993), including Reeves and Nass’s (1996) media equation, humans have limited abilities to distinguish between real and mediated representations, as the brain has not evolved in response to the latter. Therefore, interactions with media are “fundamentally social and natural” (Reeves & Nass, 1996, p. 5).

The primary force behind CASA is the concept of “mindlessness” (Nass & Moon, 2000). People often process stimuli automatically, conserving cognitive effort and maximizing response efficiency (Langer, 1989). According to CASA, rather than scrutinize a message or evaluate the symbolic representations therein, humans respond in an automatic way to mediated stimuli. If a computer demonstrates social behavior, people do not exert the cognitive effort to determine how to behave with a social machine; rather, they respond and react to computers in a manner similar to how they respond to other people (Nass & Moon, 2000). Thus, CASA would predict high levels of social presence during social interactions in VEs.

3.3 Model of Social Influence in Virtual Environments The model of Social Influence in Virtual Environments (SIVE) elaborates several variables believed to affect how persuasive virtual social beings can be (Blascovich, 2002; Blascovich et al., 2002). Perceived agency is important because it affects the degree of social presence an individual feels and thus the likelihood of influence occurring. Blascovich et al. (2002) posit that computers (agents) elicit less social presence than humans (avatars) in virtual interactions, but that this difference diminishes the more behavioral realism agents portray.

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