Imaginative Contagion and Moral Corruption 

The Proteus Effect describes how individuals’ attitudes and behaviour conform to those of the avatar they play as in virtual reality (Yee and Bailenson 2007; 2009; Waggoner 2009; Yee et al. 2009; Montola 2011). Participants assigned taller avatars behaved more confidently in a subsequent non-virtual negotiation task than participants assigned shorter avatars, in line with the behaviour of taller individuals. Imaginatively taking on a different identity and set of attitudes seemed to result in some temporary acquisition. Call this process imaginative contagion. Analogous contagion occurs amongst videogame players and theatrical actors. Players retain ways of thinking, impulses, physical reflexes, and even expectations that things will function as they did in-game (Ortiz de Gortari et al. 2011; 2014; 2015a; 2015b). Actors form habits of thinking and acting like characters they play (Rule 1973; Geer 1993; Burgoyne, Poulin and Rearden 1999; Bailey and Dickinson 2016).

Imaginative contagion generates a concern about our acquiring immoral attitudes and behaviours from avatars and characters we play as. When we imaginatively take on troubling identities and perspectives, these might persist and bleed into our day-to-day lives. I first explain how imaginative contagion occurs, before indicating two mental processes which prevent our acquiring explicitly immoral attitudes, yet may allow acquisition of more subtly pernicious attitudes and behaviours. First, we often resist imaginatively adopting particularly immoral attitudes – a phenomenon discussed extensively in aesthetics regarding our engagement with morally deviant fictional worlds – precluding the possibility of contagion. Second, we often imaginatively adopt problematic attitudes yet keep them quarantined to the imagination. I illustrate how interactive and immersive contexts, such as acting, videogames, and virtual reality, often require more active quarantining practices to separate ourselves from the identity we imaginatively adopt. The moral upshot of contagion is that we must be mindful of even imaginatively adopting pernicious identities and outlooks.

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Alex Fisher

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