There is a common idea that technology can replace humans in regard to workplace labor, but could they take over the task of emotional support? A study published in Computers in Human Behavior suggests that people felt support and closeness after speaking to a virtual human.
In times of difficulty, it is human nature to seek out social support. Support can be thought about in terms of emotional support, which includes comfort and relational closeness, and cognitive support, which aims to change the way someone thinks for more long-term healing.
Despite the innate need for support, in today’s day and age, mental healthcare is increasingly difficult to access. Friends can be far away or hard to meet. For these reasons, the new study sought to explore if speaking with a virtual human can provide the benefits that support from another human being does.
Lisanne S. Pauw and colleagues utilized 115 participants recruited via Craigslist in Los Angeles, California. Each participant shared their feelings of either anger or worry with a virtual human, who provided either cognitive or emotional support. Participants engaged in this study in-person with a virtual human named Julie.
Participants were led to believe Julie was autonomous but were not explicitly told she was or was not. Participants were asked to recall an event that worried them or made them angry and answered questions about it. After recalling, they would speak to Julie, who was an avatar who appeared to be sitting in a therapy environment.
The experimenter controlling “Julie” would start with introductory questions, prompt about the previously mentioned event, and then provide either cognitive or emotional support. Participants had two conversations with Julie, completed pre and post-test measures both times, and ended with control questions and demographics.
Results found that speaking with the virtual human appeared to have positive effects for participants. After speaking with Julie, participants showed less intense feelings of anger/worry and an improvement in mood. Both emotional and cognitive support contributed to similar levels of distress relief for participants and Julie’s intervention worked similarly well for participants who recalled anger and participants who recalled worry.
Participants experienced relational closeness with Julie in both emotional and cognitive support conditions. When asked post-test if they would like to continue speaking with Julie while the researcher gathered their payment, 34.5% of participants in the emotional support condition and 43.1% of participants in the cognitive support condition indicated that they would like to do so. This difference was not significant between groups.
“Together, our findings thus speak to the potential of virtual humans in fostering successful coping,” the researchers said. “These findings thus suggest that virtual humans may have unique potential in reducing sharers’ resistance to cognitive support – a form of support that is considered necessary for effective long-term recovery, yet is often resisted by sharers. Hence, although we do not conceive of virtual humans as a replacement for humans, we do conclude that virtual humans may be a valuable addition for those who may, at times, lack appropriate support from close others or clinicians.”
This study took significant steps into better understanding if humans could experience psychological benefits from speaking with a virtual human for support, which can be very significant to increasing access to care. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that there was no control condition to compare results to, leaving the possibility that participants were simply helped by talking. Another limitation is that these results only analyze the short-term distress relief; future research could explore long-term effects of getting support from a virtual human.
The study, “The avatar will see you now: Support from a virtual human provides socio-economic benefits“, was authored by Lisanne S. Pauwa, Disa A. Sauter, Gerben A. van Kleef, Gale M. Lucas, Jonathan Gratch, and Agneta H. Fischer.