Man shaking hands with robot
Social and behavioural, Digital and technology

Robot prejudice

The human tendency to form groups can turn ugly when we derogate non-members and start seeing them as somehow lesser people.

05 March 2012

By Christian Jarrett

The human tendency to form groups can turn ugly when we derogate non-members and start seeing them as somehow lesser people. A new study by Friederike Eyssel and Dieta Kuchenbrandt shows how readily this instinct for prejudice extends to our perception of robots.

Seventy-eight German students volunteered for what they thought was a chance to help the researchers optimise a social robot prototype. Shown identical pictures of the robot, half the students were told the machine was called Armin (a typical German first name) and that it had been developed in Germany. The other students were told the robot was called Arman (a typical Turkish name; Turks are the largest minority group in Germany) and that it had been developed at a Turkish university.

The students evaluating the supposedly German-built robot Armin, rated it as warmer, of superior design, as having more of a mind, said they felt psychologically closer to it, and expressed more of a willingness to live with it, as compared with the students who evaluated the supposedly Turkish-built Arman. So not only did the German students show a basic preferential bias toward the robot that had a German name and provenance, they also saw it as more human. This fits with previous research showing how readily we are able to perceive out-group members, such as the homeless, as less than human.

“We demonstrated that social categorisation processes generalise to non-human agents,” the researchers said. “Even small changes at a seemingly superficial level … sufficed to bias both the mental models of the robots, and subsequent evaluations. Our results document how deeply ingrained heuristic modes of thinking about others seem to be – may they be human or even non-human.”

It’s a shame that the researchers didn’t include a separate, standard measure of the prejudice of their participants towards Turkish people. Would people without any measurable prejudice still have exhibited these biases towards the German robot? Another important omission: there was no assessment in the paper of whether the participants were fans of the Terminator film franchise – surely Arnie fans the world over would have had a soft spot for Armin over Arman.

Eyssel and Kuchenbrandt said their findings have practical implications. Sooner or later, they predicted, robots will enter our homes. “If one and the same product shall be marketed in different countries, it might be valuable to provide the robot with a brand name that signifies in-group membership,” they said.

Further reading

Eyssel, F., and Kuchenbrandt, D. (2011). Social categorization of social robots: Anthropomorphism as a function of robot group membership. British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02082.x