Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

robot-doctor-fix

(Photo: JSlavy/Shutterstock)

I’d Never Admit That to My Doctor. But to a Computer? Sure

• June 20, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: JSlavy/Shutterstock)

New research finds patients are more likely to respond honestly to personal questions when talking to a virtual human.

Admit it: The last time you sat down with a physician and revealed your medical history, did you fudge a bit? Were there certain incidents you were too embarrassed to admit? Did you gloss over certain behaviors that might make you look bad?

It’s a serious problem for health professionals and patients alike. With less-complete information to work with, doctors are more likely to misdiagnose an illness, or prescribe an inappropriate drug.

Recently published research offers a possible solution to this problem: Virtual humans. In the journal Computers in Human Behavior, a research team reports patients are more comfortable discussing private matters with these computer-created entities, and this ease prompts them to disclose more information.

People disclosed information more honestly and openly when they were told they were speaking exclusively to the computer. The participants also “reported significantly lower fear of self-disclosure” under those circumstances.

“The power of VH (virtual human) interviewers to elicit more honest responding comes from the sense that no one is observing or judging,” note the researchers, led by Gale Lucas of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. People have a strong tendency to want to look good in front of others, including doctors; this problematic tendency can be short-circuited using this high-tech tool.

Lucas and her colleagues conducted an experiment featuring 239 adults recruited online. In person at their laboratory, each participant interacted with a virtual human seen on a computer screen. The figure was programmed to develop rapport with people; when appropriate, it gave “verbal empathetic feedback” such as “I’m sorry to hear that.” It also conveyed “active and empathetic listening” via nods and expressions.

The figure conducted a semi-structured screening interview with each study participant, as if they were being admitted to a clinic or hospital. After a series of get-to-know-you questions (“Where are you from originally?”), it asked a series of questions about medical issues and specific symptoms.

Half of the participants were told that their conversation was entirely computer-driven and not being observed. The others were informed they were being watched by a person in another room who was also manipulating the machine to ask certain questions. In all cases, video images of their faces were recorded and later analyzed to gauge their level of emotional expression.

Afterwards, participants responded to a series of statements measuring their comfort level with the experience. Finally, an outside observer noted their responses to certain sensitive questions (such as “How close are you to your family?”) and gauged their willingness to disclose personal information.

The result: People disclosed information more honestly and openly when they were told they were speaking exclusively to the computer. The participants also “reported significantly lower fear of self-disclosure” under those circumstances. These results were reiterated by the analysis of their facial expressions, which found they “allowed themselves to display more intense expressions of sadness” when they believed no human was watching them.

So the perception of anonymity was the key. That conclusion was confirmed in several ways, including by noting the closing remarks of many participants. “This is way better than talking to a person,” one commented. “I don’t really feel comfortable talking about personal stuff to other people.”

When it comes to fixing our health-care system, very few people would agree that part of the answer lies in less human interaction. Patients generally want more, not less, contact with health professionals. Yet this study suggests that, at least for the intake interview, a little less of the human touch—and a little more perceived privacy—may be precisely what the doctor ordered.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.