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Researchers Using Robot to Determine How Human Strangers Develop Trust

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Nexi the robot

Nexi's face has several features that enable it to have a wide range of facial expressions so it can communicate with people in human-centric terms. The robot's neck mechanisms allow its head to gesture at human-like speeds.

Credit: Mikey Siegel / MIT Media Lab

What can a wide-eyed, talking robot teach you about trust?

A lot, according to Northeastern psychology professor David DeSteno, and his colleagues, who are conducting innovative research to determine how humans decide to trust strangers—and if those decisions are accurate.

The interdisciplinary research project, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, is being conducted in collaboration with Cynthia Breazeal, director of the MIT Media Lab's Personal Robots Group, Robert Frank, an economics professor at Cornell, and David Pizarro, a psychology professor at Cornell.

The researchers are examining whether nonverbal cues and gestures could affect a person's trustworthiness judgments. "People tend to mimic each other's body language," says DeSteno, "which might help them develop intuitions about what other people are feeling—intuitions about whether they'll treat them fairly."

This project tests their theories by having humans interact with the social robot, Nexi, in an attempt to judge her trustworthiness. Unbeknownst to participants, Nexi has been programmed to make gestures while speaking with selected participants—gestures that the team hypothesizes could determine whether or not she's deemed trustworthy.

"Using a humanoid robot whose every expression and gesture we can control will allow us to better identify the exact cues and psychological processes that underlie humans' ability to accurately predict if a stranger is trustworthy," DeSteno says.

During the first part of the experiment, Nexi makes small talk with her human counterpart for 10 minutes, asking and answering questions about topics such as traveling, where they are from and what they like most about living in Boston.

"The goal was to simulate a normal conversation with accompanying movements to see what the mind would intuitively glean about the trustworthiness of another," DeSteno says.

The participants then play an economic game called "Give Some," which asks them to determine how much money Nexi might give them at the expense of her individual profit. Simultaneously, they decide how much, if any, they'll give to Nexi. The rules of the game allow for two distinct outcomes: higher individual profit for one and loss for the other, or relatively smaller and equal profits for both partners.

"Trust might not be determined by one isolated gesture, but rather a 'dance' that happens between the strangers, which leads them to trust or not trust the other," says DeSteno, who, with his colleagues, will continue testing their theories by seeing if Nexi can be taught to predict the trustworthiness of human partners.


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