The Physical Environment

Critically discuss the relationship between “virtual” and “physical” environments and behaviors, drawing on relevant social-psychological concepts and commenting on the extent to which results from online studies can be extrapolated to offline settings.


This essay will attempt to critically discuss the relationship between virtual and physical environments and behaviours, drawing on relevant social-psychological concepts. Virtual environments can help marginalise identities in which physical enviroments can sometimes constrain. Identity is constructed from others among us by their judgements whether positive or negative and develops the individuals sense of self. Cooley (1902) refers to the self as a “looking glass”, (Sapsford et al 1998,p31) in which he argues is constructed through the judgements of others. Tajfel (1978) defines social identity as “that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from knowledge of membership of a social group,(Myers,2010,p471).

According to McKenna & Bargh (1998) the internet can help distinguish an individual’s identity virtually in cases when the individual cannot express themselves emotionally in a physical environment . McKenna & Bargh (1998) devised virtual studies online involving creating a blog or chat-room in which people with stigmatized identities could communicate freely in . McKenna & Bargh (1998) results suggest that by creating an virtual environment for individual’s who cannot disclose their full identities to others in their physical environment, created a more self-acceptance and confidence in their actual identities.

Therefore the participants that took part in these studies were later more likely to be more open about their marginalised identities, and more likely to reveal this identity to their friends in their physical environment , (Amichai-Hamburger,2005,p7). Generally it can be expected that by being more open and freely about aspects of one’s identity on the internet and receiving encouragement and self-worth would in turn help an individual being more open in real-life settings. These results seem pretty sound and rational but could it not be that people can communicate freely on the internet and there is also the idea of a hidden identity as other chat-room members might not actually know the person disclosing the information.

The notion of deindividuation through the use of online users has also fascinated social psychologists. This idea of identity in online communities can only be constructed by expression and the use of typing, without this there is no existence and an individual are lost in cyberspace, according to Sunden (2003) an individual cannot fully exist online until they communicate to someone else through typing,(White,2011,p10). An online identity is only fulfilled when “textual performances” are fulfilled. While Slater (2002) states that “you are what you type”,(White,2011,p10), suggesting that individual construct and compose their identities whether actual or ideal through the use of what they say or type about themselves, in turn creating a cyber identity. The use of typing has been dicussed but what about the use of images in these online communities.

Digital representations of people were looked at by Bailenson & Blascovich (2004) using avatar images. They define an avatar as “ a perceptible digital representation whose behaviors reflect those executed, typically in real time, by a specific human being”,(Yee et al,2009,p1). Bailenson & Blascovich (2004) were interested in how these avatar images affect communication in online environments and how construction of this image reflects the online behaviour of the user. Yee and Bailenson (2007) conducted numerous studies into users behaviour using an attractive avatar, from their studies they concluded that avatars that were tall and attractive received more attention,and were perceived by others online as more friendly and extraverted than other avatar characters,(Yee et al,2009,p10).

It has been argued that individuals use the digital image of an online avatar to project and represent a positive offline image of themselves, according to Rauh, Polonsky, & Buck (2004), therefore presenting a positive image to others users during communication,(Nowak et al, 2005,p3). The research conducted by Nowak et al (2005) suggests that individuals like to use avatars online to project an image of themselves which is somewhat similar to them and their characteristics, as a way of not to revealing all their personal characterists offline.

Following on from this idea of the self in online chats or communities can reinforce role playing identities. Turkle (1995) states that identities in multi-user domains can be inter-changed and adopted depending on the type of virtual chat the individual participates in, (Turkle,1999,p463). She argues that individuals use role playing and the adoption of multiple identities for a purpose of “self-discovery”,(Turkle,1999,p464), in order to find their true sense of identity. Turkle (1995) states that these virtual environments can be regarded as “transitional spaces” for the individual’s “intrapsychic world”, (Barak,2008,p3), suggesting that virtual environments produce an in-between sense of self, the individual we are and our ideal self. Following on from Turkle (1995) idea of the internet offering individuals a sense of space, Baumeister and Leary (1995) state that these virtual worlds present a space to provide individual needs of belonging and social acceptance,( Gangadharbatla,2008,p8). They state that virtual communites meet three basic needs which individuals strive for, these needs include the need for: belongingness, love and control. Individuals that are also high on the need to belong scale are also more likely to engage in online environments like facebook and twitter than individuals that are not. Furthermore Baumeister and Leary (1995) argue that these virtual environments like facebook provide individuals with feelings of social approval , while at the same a vast range of friendships in which offline might not be possible.

Facebook and other social networking sites according to Boyd(2008) helps unite social ties that are already present offline, and by using computer mediated communication like facebook online facilitates these ties offline aswell,(Wright, 2011,p6). O’Sullivan (2000) states that these network sites

A recent study into the relationship between virtual and physical behaviours was conducted by Slater et al (2006) into individual’s reaction on administration of virtual shocks to virtual participants. This study was a replication of Milgram’s (1960’s) experimental study into obedience, however conducted online using a virtual environment. Milgram’s (1960) study into obedience comprised of participants issuing electric shocks to learners during a series or word recall, by recalling the words wrong a shock was administered to the learner, who was also a stooge for the experiment. The results from Milgram’s study suggest that authority figures can enforce tasks to participants, and that participants will obey and follow orders of authoritative figure unconsciously. Slater et al (2006) devised a virtual replication study of Milgram’s to obtain individuals reaction to administrating virtual electrical shocks, and to distinguish virtual from physical environments. Though the experiment was conducted online using virtual characters and not that of real life settings the results obtained suggest that this study can be generalised to offline settings. Participants undertaking the online experiment knew that it was not real but artificial, however still displayed emotions and reactions just like that of Milgram’s participants, displaying signs of stress and concern when administrating fake virtual shocks to virtual participants. The results according to Slater (2006) therefore suggest that virtual and physical environments can evoke the same behaviours using online and offline settings. Slater et al (2006) study produces interesting results however in respect to the virtual learner these results can not be expected when individuals are engaged in virtual games and activities everyday and might respond to artificial characters like actual human beings. Online studies produce interesting knowledge of human behaviour online and offline, another study which was produced from real-life setting to offline settings is that of the Kitty Genovese bystander study.

Levine et al (2005) virtual bystander study suggests that virtual environments online produce the same behaviours as physical environments offline . This study was arose as a result of the Kitty Genovese case of murder and rape in 1964, in which 38 witnesses watched while a girl was raped and murdered in the street. This case along with later psychological studies suggests that when people are put in a situation in which help is required , people do nothing to help someone else in need if there are other people about, people generally expect that someone else will intervene, and defuse responsibility onto others. This phenomenon of non-intervention has fascinated social psychologists and many studies have been conducted to understand bystander behaviour. Levine et al (2002) states that bystander behaviour is enforced by group classification, by this Levine et al (2005) suggests that people are more likely to help a victim if they feel similar to them, the notion of in-group and out-groups bias , (Rovira,2009,p6) . Levine et al (2005) were interested in virtual bystander effects, ( Rovira et al, 2009, p5). In this virtual experiment a scenario is constructed in which involves confrontation and violence using football support for teams. This virtual study is conducted in a bar in which the participants are virtually there observing this confrontation, this study is experimenting whether participants will intervene with in-group or out group individuals when assistance is needed. The results from Levine et al (2005) study suggests like the Kitty Genovese case of 1964, people will not intervene if they believe other people will help or if they feel that intervening might affect their own personal safety, ( Rovira, 2009, p9).


Amichai-Hamburger,Y. (ED). (2005) The Social Net: Human Behaviour in Cyberspace. New York: Oxford University Press

Barak, A. (2008). Psychological aspects of CYBERSPACE, Theory, Research, Applications. Cambridge: Cambridge university press


Levine, M., Cassidy,., Brazier,G. & Reicher,S. (2002). Self-categorization and bystander non-intervention : two experimental studies. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 7, 1452-1463

Myers,D., Abell,J.,Kolstad.,A.,Sani,F. (2010) Social psychology. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill.

Nowak, K. L., and Rauh, C. (2005). The influence of the avatar on online perceptions of anthropomorphism, androgyny, credibility, homophily, and attraction. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), article 8., Accessed online (7/3/11)

Rovira A, Swapp D, Spanlang B and Slater M (2009). The use of virtual reality in the study of people’s responses to violent incidents. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 3:59. doi: 10.3389/neuro.08.059.2009

Slater M, Antley A, Davison A, Swapp D, Guger C, et al. (2006) A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. PLoS ONE 1(1): e39. doi:10.1371/j+ournal.pone.0000039

Turkle,S. (1999). Cyberspace and Identity,Contemporary Sociology Vol. 28, No. 6 (Nov., 1999), pp. 643-648. URL address Accessed online 9/3/11

Wright,B.K & Webb,M.L. (2011). Computer-Mediated Communication in Personal Relationships. New York: Peter Lang Publishing

Yee, N. Bailenson,N.J & Ducheneaut . (2009). The Proteus Effect: Implications of Transformed Digital Self-Representation on Online and Offline Behavior. Communication Research published online 22 January 2009, URL address, accessed online (11/3/11) :,

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