Anthropomorphizing the Future

Even though technology has become integral to people’s lives, many still distrust the idea of technology having control over their lives—like, for instance, driving a car.
Anthropomorphizing the Future

One group of researchers wondered: Would people trust a self-driving car more if it acted more human?

Exploring this question were authors Adam Waytz, assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois; Joy Heafner, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Connecticut in Storrs; and Nicholas Epley, John T. Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in Illinois.

In one experiment, the researchers placed participants in a driving simulator. One group drove the simulated car themselves, another group rode in a simulated vehicle that controlled its own operation, and a third rode in a simulated vehicle that also controlled its operation but had a name, gender, and human voice. The third group trusted their vehicles more, even when it was involved in a minor accident for which it was not at fault. The researchers also measured the stress response of the participants in all three groups—using heart monitors and video footage—and found that the third group experienced less stress during the accident than the second group.

“Anthropomorphic features attenuated blame because people gave the car the benefit of the doubt, as if it were a person,” Waytz says in KelloggInsight.

Waytz conducted another experiment with Michael Norton, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, involving the automatization of assembly-line jobs. They found that people are less upset when their jobs are “botsourced”—or taken over by robots—if they perceive the robots as having human characteristics. They also were less bothered if the jobs in question rely more on rational than on emotional skills.

Waytz and his coauthors don’t weigh in on whether society’s increasing use of automation is a positive trend—they only note that it’s likely to be inevitable. In that case, Waytz says, “we now know a lot about what people think about robots and humans—and what capacities people consider to be uniquely human.”

Waytz, Heafner, and Epley’s paper “The mind in the machine: Anthropomorphism increases trust in an autonomous vehicle” appears in the May 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Read more about their research findings at insight.kellogg. northwestern.edu. Waytz and Norton’s paper “Botsourcing and outsourcing: Robot, British, Chinese, and German workers are for thinking—not feeling—jobs” is forthcoming.