Tech Can Console the Lonely When Given Human Qualities

Can a robot posting to social media cure loneliness?Confirming what fans of the 2013 movie Her already know, researchers have found that those who interact with life-like machines 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.

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

Interaction with anthropomorphic 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.

Can Siri, Alexa and Cortana 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.

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.”

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 thwart motivation for social contact.

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“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. 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.

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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