Would You Bare Your Soul to a Virtual Human?

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

According to a study at the University of Southern California, you just might. Sound creepy? Read on.

The research study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Army. Researchers examined whether people were more or less inclined to open up to a virtual human about mental health issues.


The University of Southern California is a pioneer in the field of virtual human research (yes, there is such a thing). Over the past 10 years, the university’s Institute for Creative Technologies has developed virtual versions of people (on computer monitors) who talk, move, and respond to humans in ways remarkably similar to how real humans behave.

In the study, 239 adults between the ages of 18 and 65 were recruited through Craigslist to come to a laboratory and interact with a virtual human as if they were being admitted to a mental health clinic or hospital.

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Some participants were told that the virtual human was fully automated, while others were told that it was semi-automated and was being controlled by a human offsite. The “intake” interviews were recorded and analyzed by a human researcher.

You might have predicted that participants opened up more to the virtual human when they thought that it was semi-automated, thinking that a human was at least involved in some way. But the opposite was true. The participants were more willing to disclose personal information to the virtual humans they thought were fully automated.

Why? Here’s where it gets really interesting. When asked about their experiences, the participants said they felt more comfortable talking to computers because they don’t have the capacity to judge or look down on them like real people do.

Woah! What does this tell us about society’s gradual disconnectedness from each other when we learn that people are more honest about their mental health, feelings, and symptoms when they don’t think a human observer is present? Is human-to-human contact in mental health care a thing of the past?

The researchers caution not to jump to such a conclusion right away. While virtual humans might provide valuable screening functions for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other mental health challenges, it’s unlikely that they will ultimately replace a mental health workforce that provides more intensive services such as individual and group therapy, psychological testing and assessment, and crisis management.

Still, this study makes me wonder just how dependent and comfortable we have become interacting with technology. Do we really want machines to become our new best friends? I fear that in some ways, they already have.


Abrams, T. (July 9, 2014). Virtual humans inspire patients to open up, USC study suggests. USC News: https://news.usc.edu/65051/patients-are-more-willing-to-confide-in-computers-not-doctors-usc-study-suggests/

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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