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The Psychological Mechanisms Behind Users’ Social Response to Emerging Technologies

As more uses for technology emerge, researchers are interested in studying which mechanism of technology, such as chatbots, voice assistants, and social robots, are most effective in explaining social presence and perceived trustworthiness for users. In other words, how do people tend to interact with different forms of interactive technology?

A new study by University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Assistant Professor in Emerging Media Kun Xu, doctoral student Xiaobei Chen, and Luling Huang from Carnegie Mellon University, wanted to better understand human-machine interaction by testing two competing psychological mechanisms behind a classic human-computer interaction theory, the Computers are Social Actors paradigm.

While previous research has attempted to examine whether it is mindful anthropomorphism or mindless anthropomorphism that drives users’ social responses to technology, findings in previous research have been mixed. Mindfulness is a state of mind where people are active and present in how they process information, exhibiting sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Mindful anthropomorphism is when people have a thoughtful, sincere belief that the non-human animal or object has human characteristics.

Conversely, mindlessness is a state of mind where people are more automatic in their cognitive processing, in that they are dependent on prior judgements. In mindless anthropomorphism, people may simply accept something as-is. For example, considering what the computer-bot Siri might think or feel, versus simply accepting Siri for what it is.

By examining whether users rely more on a mindless way of processing their impressions of technology or a more thoughtful one (mindfulness) when using technology may help inform future research into how the mind works overall.

In this study, participants were exposed to a range of technologies, including traditional technologies such as books and televisions, and emerging technologies such as smartwatches and smart speakers.

There was a high correlation between the cognitive maps of how participants responded to a range of technologies in a mindful manner or a mindless manner based on their interpretation of social cues and social signals. This showed that compared to mindfulness, the less intellectually strenuous mindlessness had more power in accounting for user’s social responses to technologies.

These findings are meaningful because such mindless responses to a wide range of technologies may further corroborate that mindlessness is rooted in human evolution. These findings also show that people not only respond to computers but also respond to a range of media technologies.

This study advances investigation into how users respond, and subsequently use, different technologies. These findings also support the implication that researchers and developers should be more cautious about the potential effects of social cues and social signals when they design technologies. Future research would do well to consider investigating other psychological mechanisms to explain users’ social responses to media technologies.

The original research paper, “Deep Mind in Social Responses to Technologies: A new approach to explaining the computers are social actors phenomena,” appeared in Computers in Human Behavior (2022).

Authors: Kun Xu, Xiaobei Chen, Luling Huang

This summary was written by Marie Morganelli, Ph.D.

Posted: May 20, 2022
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