Can Talking To A Chatbot Make Us Feel More Loved?

A psychologist discusses the emotional power of interacting with non-human entities.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 27, 2022

A new study published in the British Psychological Society unpacks the positive side of interactions with virtual agents.

I recently spoke to Mayu Koike, an Assistant Professor at Hiroshima University in Japan and the lead author of the paper, to understand how interacting with 'anthropomorphized' virtual agents makes us feel. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What is anthropomorphism? What inspired you to study the role of anthropomorphism in romantic relationships?

For most of human history we have ascribed human-like capacities to other entities. Anthropomorphism refers to the tendency to think about non-human entities such as objects as if they were human.

Romantic anthropomorphism (the act of giving a non-human agent human-like characteristics in a romantic context) is a new field combining both anthropomorphism and romantic relationship research so I conducted studies and cultivated the new field from scratch.

I am Japanese and I am very interested in Japanese subcultures. My aspiration in my hobbies have shaped my ideas to the research of human and non-human romantic relationships.

Japan is one of the world's leading countries of anthropomorphism. We have developed many reputable anime, manga, and games. These subcultures are extremely popular and fans come from all over the world. Some people even imagine fictional characters as if they are real.

I am wondering whether people's relationships with non-fictional characters can enhance our psychological well-being.

As a person who was born and raised in Japan, I am very curious to find the positive side of relationships with virtual agents and also how we form and maintain an authentic relationship with them.

This knowledge not only contributes to people in academia but also tech developers to improve their systems. I like to see my role as a bridge between users, developers, and academic researchers.

What are the practical takeaways from your research?

The core pathway uncovered across these three studies reveals that romantic anthropomorphism is linked with relationship authenticity (i.e. people feeling that their connection and relationship with the virtual agent was genuine).

This finding suggests that it is not anthropomorphism, per se — there is no reliable direct link between anthropomorphism and outcomes — but rather how anthropomorphism feeds through relationship authenticity that predicts a desire for a real-world relationship with a virtual agent and positive mood.

Putting it simply, anthropomorphism creates the feeling of authenticity in relationships. In turn, relationship authenticity is meaningful to build a strong bond with agents.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who are struggling with loneliness and resorting to online agents to fulfill fundamental human needs?

People want to love and be loved, desires which can be potentially fulfilled by virtual agents.

Loneliness negatively affects both our physical and mental health. Especially due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many people experienced isolation and depression. It became difficult to reach out to others in person.

Virtual agents have grown increasingly common in the world around us so if we can lead the way in understanding these new relationships (human and virtual agents), it might help to reduce loneliness and improve well-being.

What was the methodology of your study? What would you say were your most important and interesting findings?

In three laboratory studies, we used romantic video games (RVGs) to examine how romantic anthropomorphism predicts relationship authenticity, desire for real-world relationships and mood (Studies 1A, 1B and 2) as well as real-world interpersonal behavior (Study 2).

Across our studies, we recruited only heterosexual female participants, as we chose female-oriented Romantic Video Games (RVGs).

Three experiments revealed that the more people were able to anthropomorphise virtual agents, the more authentic they found the relationship to be.

This feeling of relationship authenticity was itself consequential, predicting more willingness to continue the relationship and bring positive effects.

In short, this study provides preliminary evidence that anthropomorphism plays an important role in virtual relationships, helping establish the bonds between people and virtual agents.

To put it simply, building authentic relationships is not just an important role in human-to-human relationships but also human to virtual agent relationships.

Most romantic relationship research has been focused on human-human social domains, and most previous anthropomorphism research has concentrated on platonic anthropomorphism.

This research identifies a unique way that people find connection in the modern world and provides novel insight into the fields of anthropomorphism, virtual interactions, and relationship science.

How are the findings of your research applicable to real life situations?

In our previous study, people who have a desire to develop social skills and alleviate negative emotions independently desire to play RVG use. People think playing RVGs reduces their loneliness and increases their well-being.

Therefore, people find more benefits of psychological health and mental well-being while enjoying their relationship with a virtual partner.

What are the social consequences of anthropomorphism?

My research especially benefits technology developers and individuals who love to spend time with non-human entities.

For example, if romantic video game developers do not understand what players pursue in a game, they are unable to improve the system.

People believe that romantic relationships with virtual agents enhance our positive feeling and help us learn social skills, so it would be grateful if society accepts the positive aspect of relationships with virtual entities.

Are there any individual differences that play a role in the context of anthropomorphism?

We considered some of the individual differences established in the previous literature on anthropomorphism (e.g. loneliness, attachment orientations) in auxiliary exploratory analyses.

However, the results of Study 1A revealed that these measures were unrelated to our key variables (e.g. romantic anthropomorphism).

There may be other individual difference variables that could play a role in the context of virtual relationships. For example, extraversion predicts people's tendency to anthropomorphise robots.

The novelty of forming relationships with virtual agents may also appeal to individuals scoring higher on openness to experience.

It would be beneficial for future research to examine whether personality traits or other individual differences influence whether people engage in romantic anthropomorphism.