Robot peer pressure

Robot Peer Pressure

According to a study published by the journal of Science Robotics, researchers from Germany and the UK demonstrated that children are susceptible to peer pressure by robots.  Scarily the findings, say the researchers that as robots and AI’s become more and more intergrated into our lives, we as humans need to be careful how they influence us. Especially the young. As it can be stated that the AI and robots could change the way that we act. Our entire behaviour could be changed by Robot peer pressure.

Authors of the paper were asking:

“if robots recommend products, services, or preferences, will compliance […] be higher than with more traditional advertising methods?”

The researches made an effort to note that robots are being introduced to plenty of other places where social influence could be important. These social environments include places of health care, education and security.

The paper was a study of a social experiment on social conformity. It’s slightly been adjusted for the modern day robotics environment. It’s called the Asch experiment.

Asch Experiment:

The experiment was that there was no correct answer to the ambiguous autokinetic experiment.  How could we be sure that a person conformed when there was no correct answer?

Asch (1951) devised what is now regarded as a classic experiment in social psychology, whereby there was an obvious answer to a line judgment task.  If the participant gave an incorrect answer it would be clear that this was due to group pressure.

Aim: Solomon Asch (1951) conducted an experiment to investigate the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform.

Procedure: Asch used a lab experiment to study conformity, whereby 50 male students from Swarthmore College in the USA participated in a ‘vision test.’ Using a line judgment task, Asch put a naive participant in a room with seven confederates. The confederates had agreed in advance what their responses would be when presented with the line task.  The real participant did not know this and was led to believe that the other seven participants were also real participants like themselves.

asch (1951) line study of conformity


Each person in the room had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B or C) was most like the target line. The answer was always obvious.  The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his or her answer last.

There were 18 trials in total, and the confederates gave the wrong answer on 12 trails (called the critical trials).  Asch was interested to see if the real participant would conform to the majority view. Asch’s experiment also had a control condition where there were no confederates, only a “real participant.” (Simple Psychology)


The test is used to illustrate how humans can be influenced by groupthink. To the point where people will deny even the most obvious of facts.

One of the cards used in the original Asch test. Participants had to say which line on the right was closest in length to the line on the left.

Image: Creative Commons

Group Influence

In the experiment Asch invited 50 males students to take part in the line vision test. They were all asked to sit around a table. They were then shown a line on a chart next to a group of three other lines in varying lengths. Each labled A, B, Or C. They were then asked which line is the closest in length to the first. While the answer is obvious only one participant is ‘real’ the rest are actors.

The actors would all vote for an incorrect answer, the test was done to see if group responses can influence someone. In the test, the real one. The person who isn’t an actor would 1/3rd of the time cave to social pressure. Giving the same wrong answer as those before them. (The real participant, always would answer last) Over the course of 12 different tests 75% of participants conformed at least once while a quarter never conformed to social pressure.

Robot Peer Pressure

It is here where scientists wanted to see if it would work with Robots. Tony Belpaeme, a professor of robotics at the University of Plymouth, looked to repeat this experiment with humans/robots. With both adults and children to see what the outcome would be.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Adults didn’t feel the need to follow the example of the robot peer pressure. However, when the children were involved with the test, they wre much more likely to cave to social pressure from the robots.  “When the kids were alone in the room, they were quite good at the task, but when the robots took part and gave wrong answers, they just followed the robots,” said Belpaeme.


Images showing the robot used (A); the setup of the experiment (B and C); and the “vision test” as shown to participants (D).

Photo by Anna-Lisa Vollmer, Robin Read, Dries Trippas, and Tony Belpaeme


The Verge are reporting that although robot peer pressure and the susceptibility of the children that’s most shocking, it’s also the fact that adults weren’t swayed which is also significant. As it goes against the theory in sociology known as “computer are social actors” (CASA) The theory deems that humans tend to interact with computers as if they are humans. The results of the 1996 study highlights that there are limits to this theory.

Belpaeme though was unswayed by this, as he stated that they were ‘expected’ as the robots that they used in the experiment were ‘too toylike’ to be influential to the adults. After the experiment the adults were quizzed and they informed researchers that they though the Robots were malfunctioning or weren’t intelligent enough to correctly answer.

As a result Belpaeme suggests that if they were to undertake the experiment again, with more impressive robots, the results may be different.

Human behaviour around robots

The Verge are reporting that while this experiment doesn’t prove the CASA theory, it does highlight human behaviour when it comes to robots. Previous studies have proved that we’re more likely to enjoy interacting with robots that are more human like. Or those that reflect the same personality as us.

We as humans even stereotype robots based on their perceived gender, as shown by the virtual assistant. (Which begs the question, why do nearly all of them have female names, Siri, Cortanta, Alexa?) Social instincts are also affecting our behaviour when talking to robots. It’s been said that we find it more difficult to turn off robots if they’re begging us not to.  Another study even suggested that we are better at paying attention if we are being watched by a robot that we perceive as mean.

Children Vs Adults

The report means that it’s children whom are more likely to give in to robot peer pressure. While researchers warn that adults aren’t immune. The dynamic between us and robots is something that we need to pay attention to. Even more so as AI is getting highly sophisticated. A good example of how easily we can be swayed by social pressure is the personal data scandal from Cambridge Analytica. If combined with social AI, it could be very messy. Belpaeme states ‘This technoligy will be used as a channel to persuade us, probably for advertising’. However it could also be used in a merciless manner.

While robot peer pressure can be used for good, such as educational settings to in still good learning habits, furthermore there’s evidence that robots can help develop social skills in autistic children.


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