Using Avatars to Change Behavior

One of the big traps for executives and consultants alike, is to assume people and organizations behave rationally at all times. Psychology plays a huge role in both the decisions executives make (or don’t make) as well as who we act as individuals. Consider the issue of retirement. Logically and rationally, most people should save more for their older years and yet not enough people act on what would seem a perfectly rational case. Dave Morris, in the Globe and Mail, highlighted the work of a behavioral-finance researcher, Hal Ersner-Hershfield:

If you have trouble conceiving of the financial needs of your older self, you’re not alone. Studies show that the part of the brain that lights up when people think about themselves in retirement is the same one that is activated when they think about a stranger. To bridge the gap, a team of researchers at Northwestern University, led by Hal Ersner-Hershfield, have developed digital imaging techniques that show prospective savers what they will look like at retirement age. Seeing themselves years later significantly increased their willingness to commit more money to retirement savings, as did changing the image so that the face was smiling. Insurance and wealth management giant Allianz is now developing a scaled-down version of the technique for its financial advisers to use.

Digitally aged pictures cause people to want to save more for their retirement

Ersner-Hershfield has developed a virtual reality world so subjects are able “to literally walk a mile in the shoes of your future self,” morphing photographs of the subjects in a sort of aging mirror and allowing them to see what they’ll look like when they reach retirement.

“It is a lot more engaging to see yourself in the future and actually be embodied in that self,” Ersner-Hershfield said. The study is almost like a “reality creation,” Ersner-Hershfield said, because “for a lot of people, that reality doesn’t exist to them.” He said there is a difference between knowing you will exist in the future and actually feeling it.

“Sometimes, people don’t feel a real connection to who that person is that they’ll become in 30 or 40 years,” Ersner-Hershfield said. People in the study who looked at their future selves allocated twice as much money toward a hypothetical retirement savings account.

As the savings rate increased, the aged images’ expressions became happier. “You can start to have some empathy for who that person will be, and feel what it might be like for your future self to not have enough money in the future,” Ersner-Hershfield said. “You can really get a better one-to-one sense of what I’ll feel like, what I’ll be like, and what I’m gonna want,” by looking at your virtually-aged self. Ersner-Hershfield’s team currently is developing Web-based tool so people can view their future selves in the virtual reality at home, and an iPhone application so they can age themselves anywhere and plan for retirement.

Stanford has a great video on the use of avatars to change behavior:

The Virtual Human Interaction Lab website is:

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