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Digital confessing: Sharing secrets with a chatbot and a human

Published: 09th October 2019 Last updated: 10th October 2019

Researchers from the department of Communication and Cognition carried out an experiment called ‘digital confession box’ at the Dutch Lowlands festival, which took place from 16 through 18 August. The experiment was a success: 300 people took part, and the researchers collected a large amount of data. The goal of the project is to investigate if people share more intimate secrets with a chatbot than they do with another human being. Emmelyn Croes, one of the researchers, fills us in on the preliminary results.

In four confession boxes, participants could share their deepest secrets anonymously, either with a chatbot or with another human. The researchers  checked if participants had drunk any alcohol, because people may show more uninhibited behavior under the influence of alcohol, causing them to share more intimate secrets. 

Croes: ‘Visitors to LowLands could each make use of a confession box for five minutes. They all had a secret to share, their confessions had real content to them, and they were serious in the vast majority of cases. People could share their confession with a human or with a chatbot, which either responded empathically on non-empathically to their confession. The first thing we found was that alcohol did not affect the intimacy of the secrets that were shared. The content of confessions mainly concerned relationships, cheating, flirting, and thinking of somebody else, but there were also confessions concerning worries about study progress or drug use.’

Chatbot anonymity
One of the things the researchers were curious about was if candidates felt less inhibited to share intimate secrets with a chatbot than they did with a human. The first few results show there is little difference between the two in this regard. Croes: ‘Our idea was that people would more easily share secrets with an anonymous chatbot, which can’t judge you and won’t make you feel ashamed. While the empathic chatbot did do better than the non-emphathic one, it did not do as well as a human. Also, occasionally there will be miscommunications with a chatbot, and then confessions don’t work.’
Another research question the team wanted to find out about was which made people feel more relieved: confessing to a chatbot or confessing to a human. ‘After their confession, we asked them about the extent to which they felt relieved. The sense of relief turned out to be stronger with the empathic chatbot than with the non-empathic one, but strongest after confessions to a human. At the same time, compared to the chatbots, there was more of a fear of being judged when confessing to a human being.

Application in health care 
The researchers are going to further work out the findings and hope the conclusions can be applied in the use of chatbots in health care. ‘The advantage of sharing secrets with chatbots is that you can even share intimate secrets anonymously. But chatbots are not therapeutic, and if people have unrealistic expectations, chatbots can have a negative effect or even be harmful. People are looking for empathy, for fitting responses, and for advice’ says Croes. 
Prof. Marjolijn Antheunis, who is in charge of the research together with Emmelyn, is also investigating friendships with chatbots, with an eye to relieving the plight of lonely young people, who may benefit from a relationship like that.  

By Tineke Bennema