The Role of Social Robots in Fostering Human Empathy : A Cross-Cultural Exploration

Aug. 1, 2018

Reynolds-Cuéllar, Pedro. "The role of social robots in fostering human empathy: a cross-cultural exploration." PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018.


Empathy is a fundamental socio-emotional human ability. It allows us to regulate our emotions in reference to other's emotions, to understand and interpret others' emotional states, and to act accordingly. Recent studies show how levels of empathy, particularly across young populations in the United States, are on a steady decline (Konrath, O'Brien, & Hsing, 2011). Although numerous interventions to address this issue have been tested, to the best of my knowledge, no work to date has explored the potential of social robots to support behavior, understanding and expression of human empathy among children. In this thesis, I present the results of an experiment with children from two countries, exploring how social robots can help in further understand and support the development of empathy in this particular population. In light of the challenge of decreasing levels of empathy, I raised the question of how interactions with social robots can help foster empathic skills in children with aggressive tendencies. I also stressed the importance of cross-cultural studies in order to broaden our understanding of the potential this technology holds for this specific application. I developed a novel interaction using two social robots, geared towards tapping into children's empathic models; evoking empathy and capturing relevant information either through behavior, understanding or physiology metrics. I found that empathy interventions using robotic companions can be an efficient tool to engage children. I also found significant differences in a cross-cultural sample, showing the importance of this approach. I present results indicating how through interaction with social robots, behaviorally-challenged children can successfully perceive, act, reflect, and practice empathy. These findings are encouraging when considering the potential of this technology for future interventions.

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