Neuroscience Explores Why Humans Feel Empathy for Robots

Brain scans show that the neurological patterns linked with pangs of empathy for humans also occur when we see a robot treated harshly

Brain scans
Brain scans show that the neurological patterns linked with pangs of empathy for humans also occur when we see a robot like WALL-E treated harshly. Image via Flickr user Rob Boudon

If, while watching WALL-E, your heart broke just a little bit when you saw the title character desperately travel across outer space in search of true love, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. Sure, WALL-E is a robot. But its cute, anthropomorphized look and all too human desire to end its loneliness made us subconsciously forget that it is not human.

The ability to forget that key point wasn’t just a matter of clever storytelling. New research shows that, at least in a small sample of people tested, the same neural patterns that occur when we feel empathy for a human onscreen are present in our brains when we see a robot onscreen.

A robot is shaken and beat up during the videos viewed as part of the experiment.
A robot is shaken and beat up during the videos viewed as part of the experiment. Image via Rosenthal-von der Pütten et al

A group of researchers from the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to come to the finding, tracking blood flow in the brains of 14 study participants when they were shown videos of humans, robots and inanimate objects being treated either affectionately or harshly. The researchers, who will present their findings at the June International Communication Association conference in London, found that when participants were shown videos of a robot (a product called Pleo, which resembles a dinosaur) petted, tickled and fed, areas in their limbic structures—a region of the brain believed to be involved in emotional responses—activated. When they were shown videos of a human getting a massage, the same sorts of neural activity occurred.

The same pattern also occurred when the participants were shown videos of the robots and humans being treated harshly—shaken, dropped or suffocated with a plastic bag—but with a twist. Interestingly, their fMRI results showed levels of limbic activity much greater when they saw humans treated poorly than when they saw the robots. This correlated with the responses on surveys that the participants took after watching the videos, on which they reported some empathy for the robots, but more for the humans.

The results suggest that the reason we feel empathy for robots like WALL-E is that, when we see them treated a certain manner, it triggers the same sort of neural activity as seeing a human treated that way. In a sense, our mind interprets the robot to be human-like in a way that it doesn’t for, say, a rock. On the other hand, one possible explanation for why, despite this pattern, they still arouse less empathy than humans when being treated harshly is that we interpret them as something slightly less than human—something more like a pet.

Of course, this explanation comes with an important caveat: correlation vs. causation. We don’t know for sure that these neurological patterns cause empathy, per se, just that they reliably occur at the same time. (Further, we can’t say for sure that this effect is unique to robots—stuffed animals and dolls might engender the same feelings of empathy.)

Even if the patterns only correlate with empathy, though, they could be an effective objective measure of how much empathy people feel when observing various types of robots—and research into that area has practical implications that go far beyond Hollywood. One of the main areas, the scientists say, is in the engineering of robots that engage with humans on a frequent and long-term basis.

“One goal of current robotics research is to develop robotic companions that establish a long-term relationship with a human user, because robot companions can be useful and beneficial tools. They could assist elderly people in daily tasks and enable them to live longer autonomously in their homes, help disabled people in their environments, or keep patients engaged during the rehabilitation process,” Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten, the study’s lead author, said in a press statement. “A common problem is that a new technology is exciting at the beginning, but this effect wears off especially when it comes to tasks like boring and repetitive exercise in rehabilitation. The development and implementation of uniquely humanlike abilities in robots like theory of mind, emotion and empathy is considered to have the potential to solve this dilemma.”

In one previous long-term study, two out of six elderly participants appeared to develop emotional attachments with a companion robot—giving it a name, speaking to it and at times even smiling at it—while the other four did not. Further exploring our empathy for robots and figuring out just which of their characteristics (whether physical, such as having a human-like face, or behavioral, such as smiling or walking on two legs) lead more people to feel for them could help engineers design robotic devices that elicit more empathy over the long-term—and devices that people can readily connect with on an emotional level might make more effective rehab coaches and home companions over the long-term.

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