Three-​​year project to involve cutting-​​edge human-​​robot social interactions

A mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary team lead by David DeSteno, Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Psy­chology at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, has been awarded a $720,000 grant from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion (NSF) to inves­ti­gate what mech­a­nism indi­vid­uals use to assess the trust­wor­thi­ness of unfa­miliar others.

The three-​​year project will uti­lize exper­i­ments involving both human-​​human and human-​​robot social inter­ac­tions to uncover the micro­dy­namics that underlie trust and coop­er­a­tion in novel part­ner­ships, which rep­re­sent oppor­tu­ni­ties to expand eco­nomic and social networks.

We believe that despite pre­vious the­o­ries pointing to a small set of non­verbal cues as the key to unlocking the inten­tions of a partner, the mech­a­nism that helps us judge the trust­wor­thi­ness of others is based on a dynamic ‘dance’ whereby part­ners engage in non­con­scious mim­icry that, through the use of embodied mental rep­re­sen­ta­tions, allows each partner to sim­u­late the feel­ings of the other,” said DeSteno, Prin­cipal Inves­ti­gator on the grant. “In short, mim­icry not only informs intu­itions about the trust­wor­thi­ness of a partner, but as it iter­a­tively unfolds, it can enhance coop­er­a­tion through increasing feel­ings of empathy.”

The research team, com­prised of inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized experts in behav­ioral eco­nomics (Dr. Robert Frank, Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity), social robotics (Dr. Cyn­thia Breazeal, MIT Media Lab), and social psy­chology (David Pizarro, Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity), will inte­grate the­o­ret­ical per­spec­tives and method­olo­gies from sev­eral dis­ci­plines in an attempt to uncover the intu­itive and non­con­scious psy­cho­log­ical processes that lead indi­vid­uals to make accu­rate judg­ments about the trust­wor­thi­ness of novel part­ners, and, thereby, engage in the ini­tial phases of rela­tion­ship building.

DeSteno’s team will carry out eight studies designed to examine the inter­play of emitted non­verbal cues, mim­icry, and embodied rep­re­sen­ta­tions in deci­sions to trust within the con­text of playing behav­ioral eco­nomic games. Sev­eral exper­i­ments will include the use of newly devel­oped social robots as inter­ac­tion part­ners for humans. The robot will pre­dict the trust­wor­thi­ness of human part­ners based on “embodying” their actions in its own simulators.

The researchers believe that by putting their the­o­ries to the test, they will poten­tially offer a par­a­digm shift for inves­ti­ga­tions with respect to studying how the human mind is designed to deal with the cen­tral adap­tive chal­lenge of whom to trust.

Our research will not only have sci­en­tific impact for sev­eral fields of schol­ar­ship, the col­lab­o­ra­tions will lead to building inter­dis­ci­pli­nary infra­struc­tures for studying many phe­nomena rel­e­vant to human social inter­ac­tion,” added DeSteno.

The team plans not only to dis­sem­i­nate find­ings across sev­eral sci­en­tific dis­ci­plines, but to the public at large. The indi­vidual prior work of the respec­tive sci­en­tists has been repeat­edly fea­tured in major media outlets,including The New York Times, Newsweek, and ABC News.

The grant is part of the 2008 com­pe­ti­tion in the NSF’s Human Social Dynamics (HSD) Pri­ority Area. The HSD ini­tia­tive seeks to encourage research by mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary teams in order to stim­u­late break­throughs in knowl­edge con­cerning human action and devel­op­ment as well as orga­ni­za­tional, cul­tural, and soci­etal adap­ta­tion and change.

For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact Renata Nyul at 617–373-7424 or at r.​nyul@​neu.​edu.

About North­eastern

Founded in 1898, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity is a pri­vate research uni­ver­sity located in the heart of Boston. North­eastern is a leader in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research, urban engage­ment, and the inte­gra­tion of class­room learning with real-​​world expe­ri­ence. The university’s dis­tinc­tive coop­er­a­tive edu­ca­tion pro­gram, where stu­dents alter­nate semes­ters of full-​​time study with semes­ters of paid work in fields rel­e­vant to their pro­fes­sional inter­ests and major, is one of the largest and most inno­v­a­tive in the world. The Uni­ver­sity offers a com­pre­hen­sive range of under­grad­uate and grad­uate pro­grams leading to degrees through the doc­torate in six under­grad­uate col­leges, eight grad­uate schools, and two part-​​time divi­sions. For more infor­ma­tion, please visit www​.north​eastern​.edu.