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Lonely People Are More Likely to Think Inanimate Objects Are Alive

Here’s some science sure to brighten your day.

by Jordan Pearson
Sep 8 2014, 8:55pm

IEEE humanoid bots at this year's CES. Image: Derek Mead

As far as social skills go, being able to determine whether someone is alive or not can come in handy, especially in the age of social robots. But according to new research, being lonely might affect your ability to tell whether you're looking at a living, breathing human or an inanimate object.

The desire to relate to other humans is a powerful drive that can lead to all sorts of weird social manifestations, such as attributing human characteristics to nonhuman entities like pets, gadgets, and, soon, robots

According to researchers at Harvard and Dartmouth College, socially disconnected people are extremely motivated to identify potential partners in emotional connection, leading to the the misidentification of non-living humanoids as alive.

"As social beings, we have an intrinsic motivation to pay attention to and connect with other people," Katherine Powers, the study's lead author, said in a statement. "We wanted to examine the influence of this social motive on one of the most basic, low-level aspects of social perception: deciding whether or not a face is alive."

Test subjects were asked to identify morphed faces as human or inanimate on a sliding scale.

In the study, published in Psychological Science, the researchers conducted two separate tests meant to gauge the relationship between social connection and the likelihood of chatting up a doll—like, a literal doll of the Raggedy Ann variety, or a cute 'lil robot—about your day.

In the first trial, thirty undergraduate students were asked to identify 90 morphed faces, which combined a doll's visage with that of a human on a sliding scale, as human or non-human. Then, the students were required to fill out a Need to Belong survey, which asked them to agree or disagree with statements like "I want other people to accept me."

Except for one person who apparently "indicated a clear misunderstanding of the response labels" and had to be ejected from the study—Dead? Alive? These are just labels, man—the participants' results indicated that people who were socially disconnected had a lower threshold for identifying faces as alive and human, regardless of their status as either.

In the second study—and this part is pretty brutal—the researchers got forty-nine undergraduates to fill out a personality survey and fabricated the results so that some of the students were told that their futures were destined to be lonely and isolated, while others were told that they will have a happy and stable life full of pals.

After the students completed the same identification test as the first group, the researchers found that feelings of social disconnection, real or fabricated, lowered the threshold for life detection by 7 percent.

The blue line represents participants who scored highly on the Need to Belong Survey, while the red line represents those who had low connection scores.

According to the researchers, the ability to determine if someone is alive or not is intimately tied to the perception of that person as having conscious thoughts. Thus, it's reasonable to assume that a lower threshold for deciding if an object is human also means a lower threshold for assuming consciousness.

"The ability to perceive that people have minds capable of conscious thought (e.g., mind perception) has been identified as a close proxy of animacy," the researchers wrote. "Considered in this light, our findings suggest that social disconnection may similarly influence the extent to which people engage in mental-state attribution."

The study's main findings, as well as this final suggestion, are especially interesting at a time when robots are finally making their way into everyday life. Right now, robots are working as bellhops, giving people guided tours of classical art, and caring for old people. Not to mention that we're soon going to be doing our jobs alongside robotic coworkers.

Knowing that feelings of social disconnection leads to the mistaken assumption that these increasingly humanoid objects are alive paints a particularly bleak picture of our future relationships with our non-human things. Then again, for some, the possibility of robotic companionship in lieu of the human kind could be a comfort, however cold.