People follow the norm… even the norm is a computer, and wrong

People tend to follow the norm – that’s pretty well documented, and well understood. However, a new study has found that not only do people tend to follow other people, but they also follow the lead of a computer – even when it is blatantly wrong.

World of Warcraft is one of the most played computer games in history. In it, the player constructs an avatar and then completes quests.

In modern society, real life interactions and discussions are becoming rarer, substituted by computer or mobile phone interaction. Many routine tasks are delegated to virtual character, we often talk to people who are very far away from us in real life, and many people spend several hours every day playing computer games with a virtual avatar. This new study conducted by Ulrich Weger of the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany shows that for better or for worse, this type of activity enables people to acquire and practice real-life skills and new viewpoints. Weger and his team wanted to see how this affects people in day to day activities.

[Also Read: Interview with researcher Simone Kuhn about video games and the brain]

Participants in the study were asked to play an avatar computer game for seven minutes and then answered some questions where they had the chance to override wrong answers given by the computer. It was found that actually playing the game makes people identify with the computer, and follow its lead – even when it gave wrong answers. This further confirms that humans have a tendency to follow others’ lead, even when it’s a non-human lead.

The reason why such behaviour happens is something called information conformity. Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms. Information conformity is applying that set of behaviors to (of course) information. Researchers believe that as more and more people play video games for longer and longer times, it’s important to understand how this affects us in real life activities.

“Parents, educators, and players will need to take these consequences into consideration and take appropriate countermeasures,” says Weger. “For instance, at the very least it would be appropriate to reflect on what it really means to be human. We need to examine how this humanness can be educated and strengthened when it is shifted towards a more robot-like nature during virtual journeys as an avatar. The long-term consequences of such virtual reality gaming is also difficult to estimate – for instance in terms of a potential alienation from real-life encounters. By the time we know for sure what the consequences really are, it is likely going to be more difficult, perhaps impossible, to take appropriate countermeasures.”

Video games have received much attention in recent years, and rightly so. After the initial surge of disapproval coming from parents, scientists are starting to understand that video games can actually improve cognitive abilities. In 2013, a study found that playing video games improves spatial orientation, memory formation and strategic planning and further research showed that violent games don’t encourage violence in real life. Still, as this study found, there are still many effects we are just starting to understand.

Reference: Weger, U.W. et al (2014). Virtually compliant: Immersive video gaming increases conformity to false computer judgments, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, DOI 10.3758/s13423-014-0778-z

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