Cyber Crush: The Allure of Online Attraction

April 27, 2008 at 3:34 pm (Communication, Friendship, Life, Love, Relationships, Second Life) (, , )

Awhile back I invited guests to submit relevant topics to post on my blog. My great friend Joey Svenska finally took me up on the offer. This is his original post, in its entirety.
~Cindy Kesey

I think it is human nature for people to want to connect with others. We want to be liked and accepted, and either consciously or otherwise, we tend to seek out and bond with others whom we perceive to be similar to ourselves. I also think the majority of people who purposely put themselves into social situations–even virtual ones like Second Life (SL)–are generally receptive to interacting with others; otherwise, they’d have their noses in a book or their eyes glued to the television set instead of venturing out.

But as human beings we are, at our most base level, merely animals, and some of the most primitive of human instincts are those that involve the desire to seek out a potential mate. Thus it’s no surprise that with the right combination of physical attraction, charm, and witty exchanges, the desire to socialize and the innate primal impulse to find a partner can coalesce into a classic recipe for “hooking up,”especially when all of these elements are combined within a virtual framework designed for interaction. Add a couple of glasses of wine to that and it’s very easy to see how so many people in SL find themselves deeply infatuated with someone else online–whether they intended to or not.

As many of we SL veterans can attest, meeting and connecting with a new person in-world can be rather exciting, especially if we find our counterpart to be charming and visually-appealing. And of course, as we all have seen, in SL virtually everyone is drop-dead gorgeous. But why is it that the initial spark we often feel when meeting someone new is so short-lived? And why do we, time and time again, find ourselves craving the intense energy and strong emotional feelings that we get from new encounters?

I think some of the answers may come from an area of psychology known as cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are learned behaviors that influence and sometimes foul up our ability to make rational decisions. One particular cognitive bias known as the “halo effect” was identified by psychologist Edward Thorndike and later expanded upon by Solomon Asch. They discovered that when an observer finds a particular aspect of a situation appealing they tend to assume that the other undiscovered traits of the situation are also positive, even in the absence of supporting evidence. As such, when one person finds another physically attractive or particularly intelligent, it’s quite common for the observer to generalize that the observed person’s other personality aspects are equally appealing.

We also tend to perceive brand new people in the best light because we are initially unaware of their faults and shortcomings. Over time, we slowly and inexorably discover that the new person is just another ordinary human being, fraught with their own merits and faults. But during those blissful initial stages, the new person is often regarded as if they truly do wear a halo.

The halo effect seems to explain, at least in part, how we become so myopically focused on the positive aspects of a partner whilst we are–at least temporarily–blind to their differences and faults. As time goes by and as we learn more about the new person’s proclivities and foibles, our overly optimistic initial perception of the new person tends to wane along with the law of diminishing returns.

So why are we so addicted to the bliss of initial encounters when we know based on our past experiences that the magic almost always fades away? It’s probably because our brain experiences an arousal response when we meet new potential mates. The stimulation provided by a flirtatious conversation with a sexy new person in a romantic setting is a likely trigger for the release of neurochemicals in our brains, giving us a temporary “high”– something that feels really good and makes us crave more.

But alas, as with all mind-altering substances, the partaker builds up a tolerance to the conditions that facilitate the “high,” and as the effects are successively shorter-lived they thus require more and more of the stimulus to get to that exalted happy place. Paradoxically, as we learn more about the new person, their halo starts to dim and we begin to lose, little by little, the charge of that initial excitement. At that point I think the focus of the relationship must necessarily change from one of simple attraction into one based on honest communication, mutual respect, and shared experiences in order for it to grow and thrive.

After some reflection on this, it has become rather apparent to me how easy it is for people to become so totally enthralled, and, yes, even addicted to establishing new relationships. I also see how some of us can suffer a bit from our nascent online infatuations and even become somewhat frustrated as we continue to crave the intense feelings associated with the ephemeral high of those sublime first encounters.

So the next time an initial physical attraction sparks up your primitive mating instinct and gives you those warm fuzzy feelings, be sure to enjoy that moment to its fullest. As it’s quite likely that future encounters with the new person may become successively less thrilling. However, if you go into the situation knowledgeable of the halo effect, and you put forth some time and effort to really get to know that person better and communicate openly and honestly about your feelings, you may find yourself with something that is far more rewarding than a simple cyber-infatuation: that of a true friendship and a lasting relationship.

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Which came first Second Life or the messed-up marriage?

April 16, 2008 at 9:34 pm (Communication, dishonesty, Life, Love, Marriage, Relationships, Second Life, Sex) (, )

Did you hear that? It’s the sound a movie makes when you play it in quickly in reverse. It’s the same sound you heard when you played those old Ozzy and Led Zeppelin record albums (yes, record album…look it up kids) backwards to hear their supposed secret messages. But that sound has a new meaning. It’s now the sound you hear when someone uninstalls Second Life (SL) from their computer. All their experiences–the love affairs, explorations, live music, poetry readings, amazing conversations, drama, and discovery–played in reverse as their virtual world is sucked back into the void. And it just happened again.

Sadly the person who erased the existence of his virtual life this time was a good friend of mine. But I hear the sound more and more frequently as people struggle to come to terms with the ways in which Second Life is affecting their real lives.

Like the story of so many others, one ordinary online day my friend’s unsuspecting spouse stumbled upon his up-till-then secret Second Life romance. Shocked, she stood and stared at the computer screen, mouth gaping, silently soaking in what she was seeing on the screen: the sensuous embrace between her husband’s avatar self and his avatar sweetheart. What ensued, according to my friend, was a spat of monstrous proportions complete with sinister accusations, insufferable demands, and blanket ultimatums.

Sound familiar?

The sad thing about this scenario is that, because my friend was caught in the proverbial act so to speak, he seemed compelled to shoulder the weight of the blame for the state of the relationship he and his spouse shared. But that is just too simple and life is never simple, is it? For there must have been something that led him–and many others like him–to land and linger in Second Life in the first place.

What I’ve found is that people from all walks of life are floundering in uninspired and sometimes even loveless marriages, then flocking to Second Life in search of something to fill the void. Most of them don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing; they themselves foster the illusion that all is well on the homefront. (Ah, if I had a dime for every person I’ve met in SL who, upon first meeting, told tales of happy marriages later fessing up to the reality of their fizzling real life connections.)

My point is that for every person engaged in what many would deem “cyber-cheating,” there is usually an untold tale of marital strife that led them to seek out online diversions in the first place. In essence, it’s the same familiar chicken-and-egg cycle: the relationship is broken so we seek solace somewhere else. Then the virtual adventures cause partnership problems. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

So if you find your partners engaged in online relationships that you don’t understand, don’t simply slam down your gavel and thrust your verdict upon them just yet. Talk openly and honestly with him or her about why they are in Second Life.

And for those of you running from your real life and into the arms of your online loves it’s time to get real. Stop torturing yourself and those around you and make some decisions that will have a positive impact in your real life. It may mean that, like my friend, you must uninstall SL for awhile. Or perhaps you can get to the root of the problem with your partner and patch things up without saying goodbye to all the great things SL has to offer.

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