Research reveals why it is we feel empathy for inanimate objects

By Kate Hassett

Research reveals why it is we feel empathy for inanimate objects
Why is it that we feel empathy for robots and other inanimate objects?

Movies and television shows about human relationships with robots and other inanimate objects have been produced for what feels like a lifetime now. From A.I to Toy Story, anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human characteristics and emotions onto inanimate objects, denotes a certain empathy when viewing non-human characters. So why is this? Why do we feel so strongly for these inanimate objects, especially when they are unable to feel the same for us?

Although these robots and androids are becoming more accepted in the human world, very little is understood about the emotional effects they elicit.

Two connected studies by scientists at the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany have looked at how humans react to a dinosaur-like robot.

The dinosaur, called Pleo, was first shown being petted and given affection. After these kind reactions, Pleo was shown being hurt. The first study asked participants what feelings they associated with Pleo after he was abused and after he was given affection. Mostly all the participants stated that they felt distressed and pained when watching Pleo be tortured.

During the second experiment, an MRI was used to document which areas of the brain were activated when a human witnessed the suffering of either another human, a robot or an inanimate object.

When affection was given, the empathetic areas of the brain’s limbic system were activated. When the robot and human were hurt a similar response was given showing “negative empathetic concern for the human in the abuse condition,” according to the study.

Research like this provides important information about how best to build robots that are able to provide assistance and work alongside humans. Empathetic relationships with these robots have the potential to provide a place for their beneficial and integral roles in society.

Another study conducted with elderly people found that companionship was just one of the benefits these robots were able to provide.

“One goal of current robotics research is to develop robotic companions that establish a long-term relationship with a human user, because robot companions can be useful and beneficial tools. They could assist elderly people in daily tasks and enable them to live longer autonomously in their homes, help disabled people in their environments, or keep patients engaged during the rehabilitation process,” Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten, lead author of the studies, said in a statement.

The possibilities are endless when it comes to how robots and other assistance-type droids will be incorporated into our daily lives in the near future, but one thing is for sure – if they are designed well and given adequate care, they may end up being more than we initially expected.

What do you think about the role of robots in the future?




Let us keep you up to date with our weekly MiNDFOOD e-newsletters which include the weekly menu plan, health and news updates or tempt your taste buds with the MiNDFOOD Daily Recipe.