Theses Doctoral

The Investigation of Helping Behavior in the Virtual World

Chakrabarti, Debaki

In the recent wake of media reports of peer victimization and its deleterious effects, this study sought to create a personality profile of the individual who is able to resist social, personal and group pressures in order to help a victim of bullying behavior. This research is based on findings from a study by Dr. Elizabeth Midlarsky on rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust (Midlarsky, Fagin-Jones and Nemeroff, 2006). The present study examined the differences in personality variables of individuals who were either rescuers or bystanders in a peer bullying situation that occurred in the virtual medium of Second Life. Additionally, due to the novel nature of this experimental medium, this study also examined the utility of Second Life as a mechanism for creating realistic psychological experiences. Independent variables included the following personality variables: locus of control, social responsibility, altruism, morality, autonomy, tolerance, risk taking, and empathy, and the participant's experience in the virtual medium was assessed by: realism of the scenario, realism of the world and immersion. The dependent variable was whether or not the participant intervened in the animated scenario by helping the victim.
This study featured a unique experimental design that utilized a virtual experimental space to examine a psychological question. After completing pre-test test measures of personality factors, participants were given a cover story that asked them to explore a virtual university campus. Immediately following the participant's response, post-test questions assessed knowledge of the bystander effect, peer victimization experiences, and the experience of the participant in the virtual world. Debriefing sessions also ascertained personal reactions of each participant.
Findings indicated that people reporting more immersion in the Second Life scenarios were more likely to intervene on behalf of the bullied person. In accordance with Midlarsky, Fagin-Jones and Nemeroff (2006), the rescuers in this study exhibited higher levels of empathy when compared to bystanders. However, no significant differences were found for other personality correlates of altruism. Instead, relationships were found among participants who intervened in the animated scenario and those who reported finding the virtual scenario a realistic representation of a peer victimization incident.
Several important differences between the Midlarsky, Fagin-Jones and Nemeroff (2006) studies and this study account for the differential results. Most notable is that this study is a one-time reaction to an event in a virtual world which presented only a possible emotional risk to the rescuers and victims. On the other hand, Holocaust rescuers typically risked their lives continually, over an extended time period. While the personality profiles of the bystanders and rescuers in a realistic, traumatizing incident was not ascertained, the significant effect of empathy accords with the existing body of altruism research.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Clinical Psychology
Thesis Advisors
Midlarsky, Elizabeth
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 13, 2013