Twitter, Human Technology FoundationLinkedIn, Human Technology Foundation
Serge Tisseron - Communicating with avatars

Serge Tisseron was born in Valence on March 8, 1948. He is a psychiatrist, a member of the Academy of Technologies and the French National Digital Council (CNNUM), a doctor in psychology with the authority to direct research (HDR) in Clinical Human Sciences, and a member of the Scientific Council of the Centre de recherches Psychanalyse, Médecine et Société (CRPMS, EAD N°3522, Université Paris Cité).


He has published about forty personal essays, fifteen collaborative works, seven editorships of collective works, seven editorships of journal issues, twenty prefaces to works by other authors, fifteen contributions to manuals and encyclopedias, 80 contributions to collective works, and over 200 personal articles. His books have been translated into a dozen languages.

More than half of his contributions deal with our relations to technological objects, especially those that use a screen as interface.


His books have received several awards in France and in 2013 he received an award from the Family Online Safety Institute in Washington for his work on youth and the Internet. He was co-editor of the Academy of Sciences' document "L'Enfant et les écrans" (2013).

A 45-minute film, combining animated images and real footage, was dedicated to him on the occasion of the tribute paid to him by the National Library of France (BnF) on November 30, 2019: “Tisseron in search of Serge”. His entire archive is available for consultation at the BnF.


He created the method "3-6-9-12, to tame the screens and grow up" and the activity "Game of the three figures, to develop empathy from kindergarten to middle school".

He founded 4 associations: Three, Six, Nine, Twelve; the Institute for the History and Memory of Disasters (IHMEC), the Institute for the Study of Human-Robot Relationships (IERHR) and Developing Empathy through the Game of Three Figures (DEPJ3F)


Latest books published (2022):

Le déni, ou la fabrique de l’aveuglement, Paris, Albin-Michel.

Vivre dans les nouveaux mondes virtuels. Concilier empathie et numérique. Paris, Dunod.

Au secours, mon fils dessine. Mémoires d’un psy, Paris, Humensciences.


Serge Tisseron participated in the round table "Do we communicate with avatars as with humans?" organized by the Human Technology Foundation on January 25, 2023.

This edition is the opportunity to deepen with him the different topics discussed during this round table.




Communicating with avatars: what differences?


Whether it's virtual reality or real life, the problem is always the same. It can be summed up in one question: when I interact with someone, will I accept that he or she is different from the first idea I had of him or her, and will I modify my attitude accordingly? This difficulty is at the heart of any relationship, but it is even greater in virtual reality. Avatars have such a strong presence on the screen that we are tempted to ignore that there is a human being behind each one of them, and to interact with them as if they were creatures generated by algorithms.


The difficulty of any relationship


Everyone knows the word "prosody": they are our intonations, and more broadly the emotions, hesitations, and certainties reflected in the myriad of nuances of our voice. But there is also a mimic prosody: our eyebrow movements, for example, and the way our mouth accompanies our words to affirm them or, on the contrary, to nuance them. And then there is also a body prosody, through the gestures, the attitudes that we adopt at any moment in our relations with an interlocutor, and also when we are alone. The whole of these prosodies takes part not only in the communication, but also in the way we build at any moment our personal representations of the world: even in solitude, the thoughts which cross me mobilize my body, my mimics, and even my verbal prosody if I sing or speak alone. This is what allows me to accept my thoughts, to tame them or on the contrary to try to get rid of them. The human being symbolizes at all times his experiences of the world through the exercise of his sensory-motricity skills, the construction of mental or material images, and the practice of spoken or written[1] language. These three forms of symbolization are in fact complementary. The body makes it possible to instantiate the representations by inscribing them in a concrete situation; language distances by making it possible to take a step back on what it evokes; and the images occupy an intermediate position between the two since they are able at the same time to move the body and to give desire to speak about them[2]. These three pillars of mental representation are also those of a successful relationship[3].



We only interact with virtual interlocutors


When the Internet appeared, many users were happy to be able to communicate while hiding what they thought was a handicap to the relationship: an unattractive appearance, a short stature, a stammer... On the Internet, everyone can indeed act masked behind a pseudonym and a false biography. But for those who wish to establish an authentic relationship, it is even more difficult than in person because the regulatory cues of the relationship that we mentioned before are absent.

Verbal prosody is in principle available with the current quality of microphones, but not always. The mimic prosody is totally broken by the remote communication because the webcams are generally placed above or below the screen and do not allow us to cross the glance of our interlocutor. As for the body prosodies, they are obviously absent from the relationship since each interlocutor is cut off at shoulder height.

It is therefore not surprising that communication via digital tools is a machine for creating misunderstandings. This is already the case in communication via video, and it is even more so when each person uses an avatar. The risk is aggravated of reducing our interlocutor to the representations that we associate with the image behind which he hides and of creating with him a form of relationship without any link to whom he really is.

To understand this, let's go back to what we said at the beginning. In a relationship in physical presence, we constantly modify the representation that we have of our interlocutor according to what he communicates to us about him, through his gestures, his postures, his attitudes and his looks. This representation of our interlocutor built at the crossroads of our preconceptions and the information of our senses has for consequence that we never communicate with a real interlocutor, but always with a virtual interlocutor, or, to use the traditional vocabulary of psychoanalysis, with a "virtual object". We are thus in what I called in 2012 a virtual object relationship (or Vor) in permanent evolution[4].

When a relationship becomes virtual

When we no longer modify the representation we have of our interlocutor with the information he gives us, and we stick to what we thought a priori about him, the Rov gives way to another form of relationship: the "Virtual Relationship to the object" (or VRo)[5]. This risk threatens any relationship, but it is even greater in online relationships because of the absence of interactions of gestures, looks and postures. And it is even greater in the metaverses. For example, an aggressive-looking avatar may behave empathetically because the person using it functions that way. If I include this element, my representation of him changes. I no longer see him as aggressive despite his appearance. But I can also continue to see him as aggressive because of his appearance without integrating the way his owner uses his avatar. I am then no longer in a relation to an evolving virtual object that takes into account all the information I have, but in a relation to a fixed object that depends only on my preconceived ideas about its appearance.

This is why the question is not to know if we are going to communicate with avatars as with human beings, but to know if we are going to reduce our interlocutors to their avatars, with the risk of finally reducing even more the people we meet to their appearance or their function. This risk is not only a matter of individual intentions. Public authorities must force platforms to offer tools that encourage exchanges and collaborative work, because it is by sharing tasks that we learn to discover ourselves. And the school institution must introduce education on the pitfalls of digital technology from elementary school, for example by inviting children to communicate back-to-back to show them the importance of non-verbal signals in the relationship.

[1] Tisseron, S., Psychanalyse de l’image. Des premiers traits au virtuel. Hachette (rééd. 2022).

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Tisseron, S., Secrets de famille, mode d’emploi. Marabout (rééd. 2020).

[4] Tisseron, S. (2012). Rêver, fantasmer, virtualiser : du virtuel psychique au virtuel numérique. Dunod.

[5] Ibidem.

Related Articles