Scaring Young People To Save More With The Proteus Effect

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about scaring young people into saving more money for their retirement by showing them a digital image of themselves when they are in their 70s. Researchers at Stanford Labs have determined that if young people see who they will become in 50 years, they will feel more sorry of about themselves and take the most appropriate action. This is known as the Proteus effect, according to the article, where changes made in the virtual world often reflect changes made in the physical world.

How does the Proteus effect make people more willing to save? “Imagine that you just got a horrible haircut or bought a great new suit,” says Jeremy Bailenson, a virtual-reality researcher who runs the Stanford lab. “You already know that your physical appearance affects your attitudes, your emotions and your behavior even if you’re not consciously thinking about it. The same thing happens in virtual reality, when you become this person with a different body or face. Those features of your avatar affect your mind.”

After reading the article a half-dozen times, I think the writer took the latest scientific research in virtual worlds to re-slant a generic article about saving more money for retirement. I seriously doubt that young people would go to a financial adviser to see a virtual image of themselves in their 70s to scare themselves into saving more money. If young people want to see what they look like in the future, one look at their grandparents should be enough to scare them. Most older people haven’t saved enough, were wiped out when the real estate market crashed, or haven’t considered that being retired means spending way less money to live within their means.

If they are going to a financial advisor in the first place, saving more money will already be on their list of priorities. Most credible financial advisers would recommend saving six months of living expenses for a rainy day fund, max out all available retirement funding options, and use any left over money for investments. Of course, there are plenty of financial advisors who would churn the account to generate fees for themselves and use gimmicks like virtual images to beguile gullible suckers.

The Delaware Chancy Court ruled against the private equity buyout of Del Monte Foods because the bank was managing all sides of the transactions to generate excessive fees. Once upon a time in America, the financial industry used to grow wealth by investing in new companies with innovative products. Not anymore. Now the financial industry is all about slicing-and-dicing the same ever smaller pie of wealth at the expense of everyone else.

According to the Wikipedia article, the Proteus effect describes the changes people make when playing an online avatar that doesn’t reflect any changes made in real life. Another article describes how people who played tall avatars were more willing to make outrageous demands and people who played shorter avatars were more unwilling to accept an unfair offer when trading. All this research is quite fascinating.

My second novel project is about two hacker groups to going to war inside a virtual world that uncovers in an international conspiracy. I’m hoping this will be a modern successor to “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, which introduced avatar and virtual worlds before the technology became even practical. The Proteus effect, and the differences between the real and virtual worlds, will be a central theme.

When I was testing Unreal II and Unreal Tournament 2004 at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises), I selected a female avatar for multiplayer games for a very simple reason: everyone else—including the female testers—were using male avatars. By being the only female avatar with a wicked sniper rifle in the game, everyone in the department knew who was scoring multiple head shots. I grinned every time my name was cursed out loud over the cubicle walls. Management asked me to stop using the sniper rifle. I switched to the rocket launcher, the cursing still didn’t stop.

Using a female avatar wasn’t because I wanted a smaller waist, woman-boobs and more options to fondle myself, or have a latent desire for a sex change operation, in real life. Using a female avatar was about being standing out in the crowd. As the old Japanese saying goes, “The nail that sticks out the most gets hammered the most.” Naturally, my female avatar was an Asian woman of modest portions. It’s all about having fun. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now I don’t play MMORPGs where playing an avatar of the opposite sex requires a distinctive mindset (i.e., you can’t play a female avatar like you would a male avatar). Those players often invest significantly more time and money into maintaining their avatars that the differences between the virtual and the real can blur significantly. (A great book about that would be “Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot” by Julian Dibbell.) But it can also lead to some awkward conversations: “You do know you’re trying to pick on up on a fat white guy in his underwear?”

Tuesday, 29 March 2011 @ 3:00PMThe Wall Street Journal writer posted a followup article defending his logic for scaring young people into saving. Didn’t make sense last week, still doesn’t make sense this week.