Digitaal biechten: Tilburg University onderzoekt op Lowlands de impact van chatbots

Digital Confession Box at Lowlands festival

Published: 08th July 2019 Last updated: 09th July 2019

Why should we share our feelings or secrets with a chatbot? And would we perhaps share more intimate secrets with a chatbot than we would with a human interlocutor? This is investigated by Emmelyn Croes, Marjolijn Antheunis, Chris van der Lee, and Jan de Wit, from the Department of Communication and Cognition (TSHD) at Tilburg University. The way they are going to go about this is by conducting an experiment at Lowlands called ‘digital confession box’, scheduled from August 16 through August 18.

The goal of the project is to find out if people share more intimate secrets with a chatbot than they do with other people.

Have you ever communicated with a chatbot? 

Chances are you have, because chatbots are getting more and more popular. In 2018, Facebook Messenger alone had as many as 300,000 chatbots.

Most chatbots are employed in service provision and customer service, like Bol.com’s chatbot Billy and Ikea’s virtual assistant Anna.

Besides these, there are also therapeutic chatbots, chatbots that help people quit smoking, and so-called ‘social chatbots’, which people can have a social conversation with, and can even become friends with. Therapeutic chatbot Woebot, for instance, was designed to help people suffering from depression.

Great sense of anonymity

Communication with a chatbot is expected to be characterized by a great sense of anonymity. You can share your deepest secrets with a chatbot, knowing that a chatbot will not tell others about it, and will not be judgmental. This is like the ‘stranger on a train’ phenomenon, which describes that we will sooner share something intimate with people we don’t know, as on public transportation, the reason being that we will probably never see that person again.

Most chatbots interact with people via text, which can create an even greater sense of anonymity. Earlier studies by Croes and Antheunis have shown that people enjoy chatting. It allows them to think carefully about what they are going to write, and they are not visible to their interlocutor. This can be very pleasant if you want to share sensitive information that you may be ashamed about. And if there is a chatbot at the other end, people feel even more safe.

Digital confession box at Lowlands festival

From August 16 through August 18, visitors to Lowlands can enter a confession box, and, from behind a computer, anonymously share their deepest secrets with either a chatbot or a human being.

In carrying out this experiment, the researchers also use alcohol testers to check if participants have been drinking, because people may show more uninhibited behavior under the influence of alcohol, as a result of which they may share more intimate secrets.

The results of this investigation can contribute to the debate in society on the use of social chatbots in social and therapeutic situations.