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Good news, robots! Humans like you more when they build you themselves

You’ll like your robot more if you build it yourself, according to new research by a team at Penn State’s Media Effects Research Laboratory.

The observation might seem trite. After all, the “IKEA effect” – in which people put added value on products they’ve customized or partially created – is an established cognitive bias. Still, in a society that’s wary of automation and where most things come preassembled, the study hints at how robots can win our hearts, even as they take our jobs.

“We have consistently found that users feel a tremendous sense of agency when they are able to customize the nature and delivery of information from online media and smartphones,” co-author and founder of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, S. Shyam Sundar, told Digital Trends. “And this agency translates to positive attitudes toward the interface as well as the content obtained via the interface.”

Spurred by a decade of interest and investigation into the psychological effects of customization, Sundar and fellow researcher Yuan Sun wondered whether self-assembly would elicit positive attitudes toward the robots, and if so, why? Of course, building a robot is no easy feat, So Sundar and Sun also tested whether the difficulty of the task would determine a person’s feelings toward their creation.

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The researchers asked 40 students to help assemble robots and another group of 40 participants to simply watch the process performed by someone else.

“We discovered that self-assembly led to more positive robot evaluations among those who felt a sense of ownership and/or a sense of accomplishment,” Sundar said, “but led to more negative evaluations among those who felt the process was difficult, exhausting and time-consuming.”

In other words, if the task was as easy as, say, constructing an IKEA shelf, then participants put disproportionate value on their robots. When the task was complicated, participants were put off.

Sundar has high hopes for what robot designers and manufactures can glean from the research. For one, he encourages them to offer more customization options at set-up to make the impromptu roboticists feel stronger self-agency, accomplishment, and ownership, which translate to more positive feelings towards the machine. But these options should be minor, so as to not exhaust consumers.

Once the robot is built, continued customization and care may help keep those positive feelings fresh. “Maintenance tasks could be a nice way to introduce customization opportunities…after the initial assembly,” he said, “so that users continue to feel agentic in their relationship with their robots.”