Studies: Online Relationships Better Than Real Life

Participants in 3D virtual worlds are more satisfied with the romantic relationships they form online than with their real-life relationships, and their levels of sexual satisfaction are similar across both worlds, according to two studies conducted by researchers at Loyola Marymount University.

LMU psychology professors Richard Gilbert and Nora Murphy surveyed users of Second Life, an online community where participants navigate 3D avatars through a fully immersive environment.

The studies will be presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference this weekend in San Diego.

Among their findings:

  • In five categories of marital satisfaction, Second Life users rated their online relationship better than their real-life relationship.
  • Half of users felt they could communicate more openly with their Second Life partner than their real-life partner, and more than a third said they have a “stronger connection” with their online partner.
  • 70 percent of users said a Second Life relationship is like a long-distance relationship in real life, but only 19 percent had met their online partner in person.
  • Participants split on which context provided greater sexual satisfaction, with 43 percent more satisfied with sexuality in Second Life, and 42 percent preferring real life.

“These studies make it clear that online relationships are no longer just a way for people to meet over the Internet and transition into a real-world relationship,” Gilbert said. “Participants in the immersive environments of Second Life and other online worlds are building separate and distinct lives for themselves, including intimate relationships.”

The research is part of the LMU Psychology Department’s PROSE (Psychological Research on Synthetic Environments) project. Other studies have focused on how students learn in 3D virtual worlds, and the effect that using able-bodied avatars has on users with disabilities.

The surveys took place in 2009 and were separately administered to 199 and 217 users in the PROSE project%u2019s lab in Second Life. In the relationships survey, all participants were involved in a romantic relationship in Second Life, and 71 had a real-life relationship with someone other than their online partner. In the sexuality study, all respondents had prior sexual experience in Second Life.

The researchers acknowledged several factors that may have impacted the studies. Users reported relatively short Second Life relationships, and the online world may present fewer opportunities for arguments or miscommunication than a real-life romance where partners spend more time together. Additionally, avatar partners in the virtual realm can be constructed to reflect any sexual or beauty ideal, and may therefore be more attractive than participants’ real-world partners.

“Avatars and immersive environments are proliferating, and relationships – including sexual ones – will occur with greater frequency,” Gilbert said. “Our surveys offer an initial glimpse at empirical data from these realms. As 3D virtual worlds increase their user base and realism, we expect more attention and research to be directed toward this aspect of human interaction.”



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