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Humans can feel embarrassed for robots, finds virtual reality study

Researchers conducted a virtual-reality study where they discovered that humans can experience empathic embarrassment when they see robots going through embarrassing situations.

The study published in the journal Scientific Reports used a combination of subjective ratings and physiological measurements to assess the level to which humans feel empathic embarrassment towards robots. Empathic embarrassment refers to the ability to share in the emotional experience of someone else’s embarrassment.

To do this, the researchers placed participants in a series of virtual environments where both human and robotic avatars went through situations that were mildly embarrassing or non-embarrassing. The situations were designed to elicit feelings of mistake or discomfort towards robots, according to Toyohashi University of Technology.

Two dimensions of empathy were investigated—empathic embarrassment and cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy refers to the understanding and estimation of the feelings of another individual. The researchers asked the participants to give subjective ratings on a 7-point Likert scale. The participants had to evaluate both their own empathic embarrassment as well as that of the avatars in each scenario.

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The researchers also used skin conductance responses to measure the physiological reactions of participants. Skin conductance response is an established indicator of emotional arousal, according to the university. It provides insights into the intensity of emotions.

During the study, participants reported as experiencing both cognitive empathy and empathic embarrassment towards both the human and robotic avatars when they encountered embarrassing situations. Crucially, both factors were significantly higher in embarrassing scenarios compared to non-embarrassing situations, irrespective of whether it was a human or a robot avatar involved.

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But there was a notable distinction between feelings towards the two types of avatars. Cognitive empathy was found to be higher for human avatars compared to robot avatars. Also, when measuring skin conductance responses, participants showed higher levels of emotional arousal with human avatars compared to robot avatars.

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