Projects - Current and Completed






1. The Identity Mappping Project. An effort to graphically represent patterns of The Distributed Self as described by Gilbert & Forney (2013). In collaboration with Andrew Forney, Dr. Philip Dorin, & Dr. John Dionisio.

2. The Psychology of Individuals who Operate Child or Parental Avatars. In collaboration with Dr. Katherine Loveland of the University of Texas at Houston Medical Center.









Multiple Personality Order: Physical and Personality Characteristics of the Self, Primary Avatar, and Alt

Richard Gilbert, Jessica Foss, & Nora Murphy

Throughout history, human beings have demonstrated an interest in modifying aspects of their identity and experimenting with alternative personas. Early expressions of this tendency generally involved brief alterations of identity such as: participating in ceremonial rituals in which participants concealed their true selves behind elaborate masks and costumes, performing roles that were discrepant with one’s daily persona following the rise of the formal theater around the 5th century A.D., and attending masquerade balls that were popularized during the Renaissance. In more recent times, examples can be found of elaborate and lengthier efforts to modify core aspects of identity such as gender (De Pauw, 1981; Royster, 2006), race (Griffin, 1961), and social class (Camigliano, 1983; Ehrenreich, 2001; Spurlock, 2005). Now, with the coming of the digital age it has become far easier to experiment with alternative personas and different components of identity. This is especially true in the context of the emerging Immersive Internet (Driver & Driver, 2008) and the rise of 3D virtual worlds where individuals can create an avatar or multiple avatars (alts) depicting almost any form of imagined self, including those that have physical and/or psychological traits that depart from their real life self.

The current study compared the physical, personality, and social-emotional characteristics of the human driver (real self), primary avatar, and (if applicable) the “most used” alt in a sample of active users of Second Life in order to investigate the dynamics of personality systems composed of multiple, constituent offline and in-world identities. In addition, it explored the motivations and primary practices related to the use of alts. Specifically, participants completed a measure of Physical Characteristics (including sex, age, hair color, eye color, and body type); The Big Five Personality Inventory (John, Donahue, & Kentle, 1991); a measure of perceived Social Connectedness (Lee & Robbins, 2001); the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener et. al., 1985) and, if applicable, the Alt Usage Questionnaire (Nunnally & Gilbert, 2009). This later measure consists of 13 items that assess the number of alts used by a participant, how frequently participants logged in as an alt, their preferred activities when using an alt, their motivations for a having an alt, and if they ever used an alt to engage in identity experimentations (e.g. varying the age, gender, or racial characteristics of the real self.

Overall, the results indicate that 1) avatars tend to reflect more idealized physical, personality, and social-emotional characteristics than the real self and 2) the primary avatar is more involved in the functional aspects of virtual experience such as shopping, exploring, building, etc., with the alt assuming equal or greater significance in social activities such as relationships, role-playing and identity experimentation. 

The Distributed Self: Virtual Worlds and the 4th Stage of Human Identity

Richard Gilbert & Andrew Forney

The rise of 3D virtual worlds and the emerging Metaverse has begun to reshape

human identity (defined as a person’s conception and expression of his or her

individuality).  Just as modernist conceptions of the self as stable, unique, and

internal (“The Psychological Self”) were displaced by post-modern conceptions

of identity as fragmented and constantly shifting (“The Multiple Self”), the post-

millennial rise of 3D virtual worlds, and the introduction of avatar-mediated

forms of expression and interaction, are ushering in a new stage of identity

called “The Distributed Self.” In this conception, consciousness and aspects of

the self are increasingly externalized and distributed into both 2D and 3D

digital personas (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, 3D virtual worlds) reflecting any

number or combination of now malleable traits of race, gender, age, style, body

type, personality, and physical health. Within this new model, the source of

identity remains internal and embodied, but the expression or enactment of this

consciousness becomes increasingly external, disembodied, and distributed on

demand. In this way, the operation of The Distributed Self is analogous to that

of “cloud computing,” where digital resources are stored in the Internet

(analogous to our central consciousness) and distributed on demand to multiple

digital platforms and devices (similar to the distribution of multiple personas

across a range of 2D and 3D environments). As 3D virtual worlds and the global

population of avatars continue to grow, creating and coordinating a diverse

identity system involving a physical self and multiple online identities across a

variety of 2D and 3D virtual platforms will increasingly become a normative

process in human development and personality. Looking further ahead, avatars

will be integrated with an artificial intelligence capability that will enable them

to learn principles or formulas that the human driver is using to direct them.

Avatars will be capable of action in the absence of the physically housed

consciousness that created it and become more like an offspring of the

embodied consciousness rather than as a mere expression of it. Moreover,

because these digital “stand-ins” or “representatives,” can be copied and

operate in multiple virtual settings simultaneously, they will enable elements of

consciousness to literally be “in two places at the same time.” Thus, in the same

way that 3D immersive worlds virtualized physical space, the distribution of

elements of consciousness into intelligent agents capable of synchronous

action in multiple digital environments involves the even more radical

achievement of the virtualization of time and challenges long-standing

psychological and philosophical assumptions about the unity of mind and body.




Communication Patterns and Satisfaction Levels in 3D versus Real Life Relationships

Richard Gilbert, Nora Murphy, & Maria Avalos

This study compared communication patterns and satisfaction levels between 3D and real life intimate relationships using a sample of 71 participants who were concurrently involved in an intimate relationship within Second Life and a separate real life relationship. Participants indicated that the quality of their communication was significantly better in their Second Life relationship and that they experienced higher levels of satisfaction with their virtual partners. The more positive or idealized view of the 3D relationships may have been due to higher levels of focused interaction and reduced stressors in the virtual world and the greater length, and associated problems, in participant's real life relationships. In addition, the presence of a concurrent relationship within Second Life could have negatively affected participant's judgments of their real life relationships. These data offer the first detailed assessment of communication patterns adn satisfaction levels in intimate relationships across the real and 3D virtual realms as the number of users and romantic partners in immersive virtual environments continue to grow.


Realism, Idealization, and Real World Impact of 3D Virtual Relationships

Richard Gilbert, Nora Murphy, & Maria Avalos

The emerging 3-dimensional Internet provides a new medium for social relationships and a context for conducting empirical research on intimate relationships in digial environments. In the current study, 199 participants, each of whom was currently involved in an intimate relationship within the 3D virtual world of Second Life, completed measures assessing whether they 1) viewed their 3D virtual relationship as an exercise in fantasy or one that had a quality of emotional realism and 2) perceived the personality characteristics of their 3D partner in more positive terms than their real life partner on an adapted version of the Big Five Personality Inventory (BFI; John, Donahue, & Kentle, 1991). In addition, a subset of 71 participants who were concurrently involved in a Second Life and a real world romantic relationship indicated whether they experienced any negative impacts in their real life relationship due to their intimate relationship. The results indicated that the majority of participants viewed their Second Life relationships as real (analogous to a long-distance relationship in real life) rather than as a form of game-playing, but opinions were sharply divided rearging whether there is an exact correspondence between emotional experiences such as falling and being in love across the two realms. In addition, participants generally reported more positive or idealized personality traits with their Second Life partners (i.e., significantly higher levels of extraversion, openness, and conscientiousness, lower levels of perceived neuroticism, and comparable levels of agreeableness). Finally, given the sense of realism and positive qualities participants ascribed to their virtual relationships, it was not surprising that they indicated that their virtual relationships sometimes served as emotional competitors to their real life relationships. Participants reported positive feelings toward their Second Life partners (i.e., degree of love, amount of openness, strength of connection, ease of relating) that rivaled or exceeded those for their real live partner in a quarter to half of the cases. Moreover, in approximately 25% of the cases, participants indicated that they experienced problems or considered leaving a real life partner due to competing feelings toward their virtual relationship.


Sexuality in the 3-Dimensional Internet and Its Relationship to Real World Sexuality

Richard Gilbert, Monique Gonzalez, & Nora Murphy

Two hundred and seventeen subjects completed the Second Life Sexuality Survey (Gonzalez & Gilbert, 2009) to obtain descriptive information about sexuality within the virtual world. They also completed a measure of their current and historical real life sexuality in order to assess the relationship between 3D and real life sexual satisfaction  (“Is your Second Life sexuality more satisfying than your Real Life sexuality?”) and sexual feelings (“I feel sexually confident more in Second Life, more in Real Life, or about the same in both realms?) The results indicate a wide range of common and experimental sexual practices in Second Life, with sexual involvement occurring at faster pace and with a larger number of partners than in real life, and in a variety of relationship contexts from casual dating to cohabitation and virtual marriage. Participants were evenly split on which realm was more sexually satisfying and tended to view the two domains of sexual experience as largely independent. They generally reported similar feelings about their sexuality across the real and virtual realms; however, when there were differences, sexual feelings in Second Life were often more positive than in real life.




Addiction to the 3-Dimensional Internet: Estimated Prevalence and Relationship to Real World Addictions

Richard Gilbert, Nora Murphy, & Talisa McNally

Multiple studies using diverse samples indicate that, on average, 3.6% of adolescents and young adults and 1% of older adults demonstrate severe levels of problematic involvement with non-immersive Internet activities (i.e., web surfing, social networking), with problematic involvement defined as usage that cannot be controlled and causes feelings of distress and impairment of daily activities. These studies also indicate that 19.1% of adolescents and young adults and 5% of older adults have moderate or at-risk levels of usage for non-immersive Internet applications. Moreover, many individuals who exhibit problematic levels of Internet usage show evidence of “cross-addictions” with various real life addictions (e.g., drug and/or alcohol abuse, compulsive gambling, eating, or shopping, etc.) Some have suggested that because of the assumed power of the immersive experience, the rates of severe and moderate levels of problematic Internet usage would be higher for participants in 3D virtual environments. To test this prediction, 213 participants, all of whom had been residents of Second Life for at least 6 months, were administered the Internet Addiction Test, the most widely used measure of compulsive Internet use (Young, 1998). The results indicated that 4.2% and 29.1% of adults, the vast majority of whom were between 18 and 49 years of age, scored in the severe and moderate/at risk range of the measure, respectively. In addition to providing the first estimates of prevalence for problematic usage of 3D virtual settings, the results indicated that the finding of co-morbidity or cross-addiction between Internet addiction and various forms of real world addictions/compulsions also applies to the 3-Dimensional Internet.


Psychological and Social Adjustment of Active Users of Second Life

Richard Gilbert & Nora Murphy


The introduction of new forms of media and communications is often

accompanied by concerns about its negative impact on society and the

emotional makeup of its early adopters. This process was evident with the rise

of popular novels, radio, television, and digital technologies such as social

networking. Currently, a similar process appears to be occurring with respect to

emerging 3D virtual worlds, where media accounts of the metaverse generally

focus on the more prurient and sensational aspects of immersive digital worlds

and raise questions about the psychological adjustment of participants in these

settings. In order to empirically evaluate the later issue, this study administered

an extensive battery of mental health and social adjustment measures to 225

active users of Second Life and compared their scores to normative data for

these measures obtained on Real Life samples. It is predected no significant

differences in mental health or social adjustment will be found between active

users of 3D virtual worlds and non-participants in immersive digital






Psychological Effects of Fully-Enabled Avatars on Individuals with Real Life Physical or Medical Disabilities


Richard Gilbert, Nora Murphy & Torri Efron, in collaboration with Alice Krueger, Ann Ludwig and Virtual Ability Island in Second Life.


This research seeks to determine whether individuals with significant physical

or medical disabilities in real life derive social-emotional benefits from

interacting in a three-dimensional virtual world with a healthy, fully enabled,

avatar. Specifically, do individuals with physical conditions such as multiple

sclerosis, cerebral palsy, advanced-stage cancer, or fibromyalgia experience a

reduction in self-reported anxiety and depression, and an increase in self-

esteem and life satisfaction, by employing an avatar that has no physical

impairments and gaining relief from having to continuously interact with others

through the lens of their disability? Participants in the study were adult

newcomers to Second Life who have a significant physical or medical disability.

They were recruited from individuals who select Virtual Ability Island as a

"gateway" or entry point into Second Life when they first joined the virtual

world.  At the conclusion of a one-hour basic orientation to Second Life (where

they were taught the essentials of in-world movement and communication) they

were offered an opportunity to complete a series of pre-test measures

identifying the type and severity of their RL disability and assessing important

areas of psychological well-being and adjustment including levels of anxiety

and depression, self- esteem, social support and social connectedness, and

satisfaction with life. After 3 months in Second Life, the battery of measures

were re-administered (except the measure on the nature and severity of their

disability) to determine the psychological effects of employing a fully enabled

avatar. In addition, the post-test assessment included a measure assessing

participant's experiences within Second Life during the intervening 3 months

(e.g., how often they logged on to Second Life, how many friends they added,

how many groups they joined, etc.) in order to determine if beneficial effects

weree associated with specific usage patterns or types of virtual experiences.

At post-test, participants’ scores significantly improved on

measures of affective states (depression, anxiety, positive emotion, life

satisfaction, and feelings of loneliness) and self-evaluation (self-esteem). An

index of overall change was associated with the number of virtual friends and

group affiliations in Second Life, as well as feelings about the self as a result of

involvement in the virtual world. The current study provides initial empirical

support that 3D virtual worlds can serve as a psychologically beneficial context

for individuals with real-life disabilities.




The Dream Museum: Using a 3D Virtual Environment as a Context for Indisciplinary Education in Psychology and Computer Science

Richard Gilbert & John Dionisio


Teams of Psychology and Computer Science majors enrolled in a course entitled

“Introduction to Virtual Worlds: Psychological, Computer Science, and Aesthetic

Perspectives” researched how various cultures in world history conceptualized

and interpreted dreams. Subsequently, using virtual building and scripting skills

acquired in the class, they constructed 3D displays to convey the results of their

research. The display areas were then placed within The Dream Museum, a

digital structure in the virtual world of Second Life, to tell the story of

humanity’s efforts to understand the mystery of dreams. Survey data indicated

that students perceived positive affective outcomes, an appreciation for

interdisciplinary collaboration and learning, and superior learning outcomes by

using an interdisciplinary, immersive learning project vs. a traditional term

paper assignment.






Virtual Worlds and the Emerging Metaverse: Current Status and Future Possibilities

John Dionisio, William Burns, & Richard Gilbert

Moving from a set of independent virtual worlds to an integrated network of 3D

virtual worlds or Metaverse rests on progress in four areas: immersive

realism, ubiquity of access and identity, interoperability, and scalability. For

each area, the current status and needed developments to achieve a functional

Metaverse are described. Factors that support the formation of a viable

Metaverse (such as institutional and popular interest and on-going

improvements in hardware performance), and factors that constrain the

acheivement of this goal (including limits in computational methods and

unrealized collaboration among virtual world stateholders and developers) are

also described.