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Interactive products can help fulfill some social needs, study finds

Interactive devices can help fulfill some social needs, but reported levels of loneliness are high.
Interactive devices can help fulfill some social needs, but reported levels of loneliness are high.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Interactive devices have the ability to fulfill social needs, with limitations, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

In four experiments, the researchers created the feeling of exclusion in various ways, such as by having participants write about an important time they were excluded and play an online game of catch in which the ball stopped being tossed to them after a few tosses.

The participants then interacted with anthropomorphic products such as a Roomba vacuum, whose design made it seem like it was smiling, and a cellphone.

"What we find is that these anthropomorphic products can fulfill social assurance needs in the way that genuine, interpersonal interaction often does. But there are limits,” said James Mourey, an assistant professor of marketing at DePaul University.

According to the study, reminding people that the products are not alive makes the effect go away.

The researchers said that people's interactions with products as if they are alive may lessen their motivation to engage with other people. This can be relevant in a time of increasing levels of reported loneliness, researchers said.

"Right now, there is a limit to the extent to which anthropomorphic products can fulfill social needs, but it is possible that this limit will no longer apply the more realistic and engaging consumer products become," said Jenny Olson, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Kansas.

According to the researchers, knowing that human-like products and humans can affect social needs, products may be able to be designed that increase the well-being of lonely individuals or complement human interaction.

For example, products such as anthropomorphic health monitors in conjunction with real nurses could allow those being cared for in the hospital to reap the benefits of interactive products without sacrificing interpersonal interaction.

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