Meet Ellie, the Virtual Shrink

A recent article in The Economist was intended to be an article on artificial intelligence, explaining how effective a computer can be in psychoanalyzing clients.  It’s all very interesting but an even more interesting quirk of human nature was revealed in the observations of the interactions between Ellie, the virtual psychologist, and her clients.  It has to do with honesty.

What researchers found was that patients, when asked deeply personal questions were more forthcoming in answering Ellie when she was perceived to be entirely an automated computer program, controlled only by algorithms.  On the other hand, when clients were given the impression that Ellie was controlled by live people behind it, the clients were more reluctant to reveal the personal information.  Now most of us would never dishonestly do something to hurt someone else, but when it comes to protecting oneself, the rules change and we are more likely to be less bluntly forthcoming when the focus is on us.  It probably has something to do with our primeval instinct to survive, just as many animals will go motionless to protect themselves in the face of danger so they don’t reveal themselves to predators that could destroy them.

In another recent study,  a similar honesty quirk was revealed.  In England, parole officers are beginning to give freed child abusers polygraph tests about their activities on the outside.  Polygraph tests, as we know, aren’t admissible evidence because they aren’t always reliable.  Parole officers can’t penalize the parolees for a failed polygraph test but it could lead to more scrutiny.  Here is the interesting part.  Studies have indicated that people hooked up to a polygraph machine are more likely to tell the truth than if not hooked up to one.  They have more confidence in a machine detecting their lies than a human being.  In fact, if you hooked the parolee up to a photocopier, you will get more accurate answers than if you just asked them directly!

In both cases, people were less forthcoming when answering a human being, but much more honest when answering a machine, in two quite different circumstances.  Again, it heeds back to self-preservation and demonstrates that we think machines are smarter than human beings!  And in some ways, that is getting to be increasingly true.


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