Is This What Therapy Is Missing?

Although therapy is often the place to go when you need help dealing with other people, that may actually be the problem: people. A new study suggests we might be more open with a robot virtual therapist than with a human.
In the study, published in this month's issue of Computers in Human Behavior, researchers at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies recruited 239 people from Craigslist to have an interview with a "virtual human." Half of these participants were led to believe the virtual human was completely automated, while the other half were told she was controlled by a real person in another room. Those who believed they were interacting with just a computer were significantly more open with their responses, displayed more expressions of sadness, and were willing to answer more of the interview questions than those who thought they were really talking to a person. Participants were also asked to complete a survey immediately after their interview; those who thought the system was fully automated noted that they felt less afraid to disclose sensitive information.
The researchers call their virtual human shrink "Ellie." And, she's a little bit of a know-it-all. She begins interviews by saying she isn't a therapist, and her creators certainly don't let her make diagnoses. But, by analyzing the details of our facial expressions and asking appropriate follow-up questions, she is able to be remarkably perceptive. For instance, she can tell when you lower your gaze to give an awkward answer, and she'll know to respond with "Can you tell me more about that?" when you only offer up half of a story. All of this allows Ellie to glean important information that you might not share otherwise.
Anyone with potentially embarrassing experiences, feelings, or health issues can tell you that being completely honest with a doctor is often easier said than done. Still, it's the things we're least eager to share that are often the most helpful when zeroing in on a diagnosis. Previous research has shown that we worry about being judged negatively or stigmatized because of what we reveal — so it's not surprising we're more likely to be truthful when we think not a single human being is listening.
Online virtual therapy (with a real, albeit remote, therapist) has already been shown to be effective for depression, insomnia, and bipolar disorder. But, Ellie's success suggests that there's only so far a human therapist can get — our modern hell may still be other people.

More from Mind


R29 Original Series