An Examination of the Relationship Between Culturally Recognized Symbols as Avatars and Trust in Computer-Mediated Communication Environments
Type of DegreeDissertation
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One of the characterizations that distinguishes man from the rest of the animal world is the use of symbols. Many researchers consider the act of forming and using symbols as the central cognitive process in mankind’s thinking. A study of human communication, then, would be incomplete without a consideration of the impact of symbolism. The use of symbols in communication has been a focus of study in many disciplines including psychology, religion, literature, and more. While psychologists have focused primarily on the cognitive processes involved in forming and using symbols, anthropologists have focused on commonly accepted meanings of particular symbols. In religion and literature, researchers note certain symbolic themes and their associations with certain abstract meanings meant to be understood by the readers of the works being considered. In more contemporary research fields, such as computer-mediated communication, the study of culture and symbols is a relatively new focus of research efforts. While it is well known that the meanings of symbols is both taught and learned through cultural phenomena, little research exists on the cultural influence of symbol meaning on user trust. The methodologies used to gather data in this study include two opinion surveys and a lab experiment. In the first two phases of the research, student opinions of commonly recognized symbols and their meanings are obtained. In the third phase of the research, student subjects were each shown one of three different communication transcripts between two fictitious students. Each transcript differed only in the avatar used to represent one of the students. Student perceptions of the trustworthiness of one of the fictitious students were measured, as was student willingness to engage in trusting behavior. ANOVA revealed sufficient evidence to suggest that the use of symbols associated with positive character traits resulted in increased trust development. ANCOVA revealed sufficient evidence to suggest that the use of symbols associated with positive character traits resulted in increased trust development. Interactions between respondent gender and specific symbol used were also significant. These results suggest that the use of certain symbols as avatars influences the amount of trust developed toward them, as well as willingness to engage in trusting behavior, key factors in the successful implementation of technologies such as automated online virtual agents, certain knowledge sharing systems, and more. Additionally, these results suggest implications in other areas such as corporate branding, advertising, and more.