Humans have been studying robots for decades, but now the tables are turning as robots offer innovative new ways to study human behavior. "We're starting to see research being done where the robot is actually the scientific instrument used to probe something about human social intelligence and behavior," says Cynthia Breazeal, PhD, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
For instance, she collaborated with David DeSteno, PhD, of Northeastern University, and colleagues to study the nonverbal cues that contribute to people's perceptions of trustworthiness. When we interact with others, we're not always consciously aware of the cues we send, Breazeal says. "It's very difficult to run a controlled experiment to really tease those cues apart," she says. "But with a robot, you can."
Using a humanoid robot called Nexi, they found that when used in combination, four cues—hand touch, face touch, crossed arms and leaning away—were perceived to be associated with less trustworthy behavior (Psychological Science, Vol. 23, No. 12, 2012). "These technologies give us a whole new tool set to try to understand people better," Breazeal says.
Bertram Malle, PhD, of Brown University, hopes the dawn of social robotics will help break down the perceived barrier between applied and basic psychological research. "The arrival of robots in society will not allow that distinction. If we want to have an impact, we constantly have to improve our basic science while thinking about applying this knowledge in an adaptive, evolving way," he says. "Psychology has a role to play in the evolution—and possibly, revolution—of social robots."—Kirsten Weir
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