Tech Can Console the Lonely When Given Human Qualities

Can a robot posting to social media cure loneliness?
Is this little guy sabotaging your ability to overcome loneliness?

Confirming what fans of the 2013 movie Her already know, researchers have found that those who interact with life-like devices with complex artificial intelligence (AI) are less likely to seek out social interactions with other people. They wrote that designing products and automated services to be interactive and appear alive could be used to ease loneliness from social exclusion.

Whether a product is a social media network, humanoid robot or video game, if it is highly-interactive it may be soothing the effects of social exclusion in individuals.

However, they also warn that the spread of these anthropomorphic consumer products could also pose unknown risks to the social fabric of your community.

Interaction with these humanized consumer products is related to a lessening of the documented effects of social exclusion, according to the study. Entitled Products as Pals: Engaging with Anthropomorphic Products Mitigates the Effects of Social Exclusion, the study was published January in the Journal of Consumer Research.

This response appears to be work at the subconscious level. Pointing out the artificial characteristics of a product appeared to cancel the effects on a participant’s social behavior.

The movie Her follows the story of Theodore, suffering from the effects of social exclusion sparked by his recent divorce. During the course of the story, he falls in love with an AI named Samantha, and the nature of love, relationships and existence itself is questioned.

Her is a 2013 movie about a lonely divorcee who falls in love with a computer program.
Her is a 2013 movie about a lonely divorcee who falls in love with a computer program.

Can Social Media Cure Your Loneliness?

“Generally, when people feel socially excluded, they seek out other ways of compensating, like exaggerating their number of Facebook friends or engaging in prosocial behaviors to seek out interaction with other people,” wrote Jenny Olson, of the University of Kansas School of Business. “When you introduce a human-like product, those compensatory behaviors stop.”

Social exclusion occurs when people feel left out, and triggers primal responses to compensate for threats to social belonging in a group. These responses usually involve reconnecting socially with other humans.

If you’ve ever suffered a humiliating event, you’ve probably sought reassurance from the people in your life. After all, everybody needs a shoulder to cry on sometimes.

Anthropomorphic consumer products use design, interaction, intelligence, responsiveness or personality to create the illusion of life. The researchers carried out four separate experiments to gather evidence. They found that interaction with these products satisfy, at least partially, the subject’s social needs after recalling feelings of social exclusion.

“Alexa isn’t a perfect replacement for your friend Alexis,” wrote lead author James Mourey of DePaul University. “But the virtual assistant can affect your social needs.”‘

What Specific Behaviors Were Studied?

When compared with similar products lacking anthropomorphic characteristics, subjects who had recently experienced feelings of social exclusion were less likely to:

  • Exaggerate the number of current social connections
  • Anticipate the need to engage with close social ties in the future
  • Be willing to engage in prosocial behavior

The study noted that these effects are driven by the need for social assurance. Social assurance is typically sought out to strengthen social ties, not to as way to improve mood.

The results point to a need for understanding on how these types of products could inadvertently thwart motivation for social contact. However, for those who are truly isolated such interaction can help ease any pain experienced from involuntary social exclusion.

A convincing chat bot on social media could be keeping you from messaging a person you know in real life after a social blunder.

If the people that make up society become desensitized to the effects of social exclusion, what sort of effects will that have? Perhaps, in the completely interactive world of the Internet of Things, the very meaning of loneliness will be obliterated.

What Are the Consequences of a Robotic Future?

“If someone notices they are talking more to Siri lately, maybe that has something to do with feeling lonely,” Olson wrote. “From that standpoint, it’s important to be aware of it.”

Unlike Samantha in Her, Siri still has some way to go to being the perfect virtual companion. Sometimes social media channels can seem to have more bots than humans. And I’ll admit it: I can’t stand speaking to automated voice systems.

The researchers note that once a person becomes fully aware of the artificiality of their interaction, the effects on their social needs go away. The spell is broken, the need for social assurance returning to its previous level.

The ability of a social media chat bot to enchant you is only as effective as its ability to appear human.

So while human-like products may be able to ease some of the pain of loneliness, their inherent artificiality suggests their ultimate emptiness. Is it possible that a future dominated by AI could not only be socially barren, but also that no one will care?

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