Ironically, in spite of the increasing popularity of these humanized products, people have never reported feeling more alone or isolated. This raises an interesting question: are these anthropomorphic products capable of fulfilling the social needs typically fulfilled by human interaction and, if so, at what potential cost?
University of Michigan researchers tackled the question in a series of experiments recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Carolyn Yoon, professor of marketing, and former Ross School of Business doctoral students Jenny Olson and James Mourey conducted four experiments and found evidence consistent with this phenomenon.
"Socially excluded people responded to exclusion in the predicted ways such as exaggerating the number of Facebook friends they have unless given the opportunity to interact with an anthropomorphic product," Yoon said.
The feeling of exclusion was created during the studies in a variety of ways, including having participants write about an important time they were excluded ("My date stood me up for prom") and an online game of catch in which the ball stops being tossed to the participants after a few initial tosses.
The participants were then given the opportunity to interact with anthropomorphic products such as a Roomba, whose design made it seem like it was smiling and one's own cell phone.
"People often name their cars or treat their Roomba like it is a pet, even referring to the vacuum as a 'him' or 'he,' said Mourey, assistant professor of marketing at DePaul University. "What we find is that these anthropomorphic products can fulfill social assurance needs in the way that genuine, interpersonal interaction often does. But there are limits."
Although the research shows that anthropomorphic products can fulfill social assurance needs, simply reminding individuals that these products are not actually alive makes the effect go away.
The findings have important implications for product design and interactivity, particularly in a time of increasing anthropomorphization of consumer products.
Although consumers appreciate the ability to interact with their products as if the products were alive, they should know that this kind of interaction may thwart their motivation to engage with real others, the researchers say. This is particularly relevant in light of the increasing levels of reported loneliness.
Product designers may want to consider the potential benefits and harmful consequences of making consumer products, or avatars in service-oriented industries, that more closely emulate human interaction, they say.
"Right now, there is a limit to the extent to which anthropomorphic products can fulfill social needs, but it is possible that this limit will no longer apply the more realistic and engaging consumer products become," said Olson, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Kansas.
Knowing that anthropomorphic products and humans can both affect social needs, there may be possibilities to design products that increase the well-being of lonely individuals or that complement human interaction—say anthropomorphic health monitors and real nurses in the case of hospital care—to glean the benefits of such products without detrimental consequences on important, genuine interpersonal interaction.