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Faculty Research: Study Finds Technology May Fulfill Social Needs

Science fiction is full of stories about robots that become so lifelike that people can’t tell they’re not human. As our digital products increasingly take on the characteristics of people, researchers are looking to see whether science fiction may be morphing into science fact.

“We are anthropomorphizing more and more of our products,” says James Mourey, assistant professor of marketing. “The best examples are Amazon’s Alexa or Siri on your iPhone. The theory we had is that if we make these increasingly humanized, to what extent do they start potentially replacing human-to-human interaction? And through a series of studies we show that, yes, scarily enough, products that do have humanized qualities can fulfill social needs, like the feeling that you belong, that are typically fulfilled by interpersonal interaction.”

But don’t worry—these “robots” are not really replacing your friends and loved ones. “Most people immediately jump to the doomsday scenario in which we are not going to be interacting with humans anymore. But what we find is that once you are told that your device is not human these effects go away.

“While there’s no replacing people with products,” Mourey says, “tech companies do need to be aware of the effect that these products can have on interpersonal relationships.” Mourey and two co-authors published their findings in the Journal of Consumer Research last January.