Saturday, May 11, 2019

Differences in Gaze Behavior Toward Women and Gynoid Robots: Non-human sexualized representations evoked a higher need for visual exploration

There’s More to Humanity Than Meets the Eye: Differences in Gaze Behavior Toward Women and Gynoid Robots. Jessica M. Szczuka, Nicole C. Krämer. Front. Psychol., April 24 2019.

Abstract: Based on evolutionary psychological theories, numerous eye-tracking studies have demonstrated how people visually perceive a potential mate in order to efficiently estimate the person’s mate value. Companies are currently working on sexualized robots that provide numerous human-like visual cues which foster the visual resemblance to humans. To gain more elaborated knowledge on how people react to sexualized robots compared with humans, the present study empirically investigated whether heterosexual males transfer deep-rooted evolutionary psychological processes of mate perception to human-like and machine-like sexualized robots. Moreover, we aimed to learn more about the processes of orienting responses toward human and non-human stimuli and about potential predictors of visual attention to robots. Therefore, we conducted an eye-tracking study in which 15 heterosexual men, 12 homosexual men, and 18 heterosexual women were confronted with stimuli showing women, human-like gynoid robots and machine-like gynoid robots. For the sample as a whole, there was no difference in the amount of time spent looking at the human and non-human breasts. However, the results for the heterosexual males supported the assumption that human breasts attract more visual attention than do the breast areas of human-like and machine-like robots. The pelvic region yielded an unexpected gaze pattern, as all participants spent more time looking at the robotic pelvic area than at the human one, with more visual attention paid to the machine-like robots than to the human-like robots. The results of the viewing times toward the head revealed that all participants had a stronger need to gain visual information about the human head in comparison to the robotic heads, underlining the importance of authenticity in terms of emotions and motivations that can only be decoded in humans. Moreover, the study showed that individuals more frequently switched their visual attention toward different body parts of the robots in comparison to the female stimuli, implying that non-human sexualized representations evoked a higher need for visual exploration.


The statement “Mating is a human universal” (Buss and Schmitt, 1993) not only implies that almost every human being, due to hormonal events and sociocultural influences, starts to develop sexual interest in women or men during adolescence (Miller and Benson, 1999), but also emphasizes the importance of mating for reproduction and evolution. To enable optimally successful reproduction, humans have therefore developed strategies to effectively estimate a person’s mate quality by looking at information provided by the person’s body (Buss, 1999). Consequently, studying eye movement patterns when people are looking at a potential mate has become an important research area in the field of human mating behavior. Results of numerous eye-tracking studies with heterosexual men highlight the visual importance of the female head, the chest and the pelvic region, since these body parts provide information about a woman’s reproductive value (e.g., Nummenmaa et al., 2012).

While the shape of the female body has been of aesthetic interest for centuries, it now also serves as a paragon for robots. Robots are machines which are built for specific reasons, ranging from work tasks in which they act autonomously and without human contact (e.g., industrial robots or robots which inspect and defuse explosive devices) to fields of application in which robots are built to have physiological and psychological contact with humans (e.g., robots in healthcare; Dautenhahn, 2007). In line with technological developments that are shaped to fulfill sexual needs (Allen, 2000) for example internet applications, VR technology), there have also been first attempts to develop robots that engage in intimate interactions with users. Companies (such as Abyss Creations/Realbotix) are currently developing human-like robots that are made to fulfill sexual needs by equipping hyper-realistic sex dolls with motors for movement and with a database providing the possibility to interact verbally. In his seminal book, David Levy (2008) predicted that by 2050, people will not only have sex with robots on a regular basis, but will also have relationships with and even marry robots. Levy highlighted that a prerequisite for these developments is that robots are “like us” with regard to their behavior and appearance.

This raises the question of whether people will use the same deep-rooted evolutionary psychological mechanisms of mating with a robotic replication of a human being, or whether mating with a robot will lead to new forms of information processing. As processes of visual attention have been shown to be influenced by the way people perceive a potential partner (e.g., Buss, 1999; Nummenmaa et al., 2012; see section “Visual Information on the Female Body and Its Perception” for details), we aimed to empirically investigate processes of visual attention to women and to female-looking. robots. According to evolutionary psychological approaches, it would be useless to process the human body and the mechanical body in the same way, because a mechanical body does not provide any authentic information about health, age, motivation, emotion, and consequently reproductive value (see section “Visual Information on the Female Body and Its Perception” for details). However, given that the mechanisms of mating are deeply rooted in humans (Buss, 1999), it is conceivable that the female-looking shape of the robotic female body is sufficient to trigger unconscious processes of visual attention that are similar to the way men look at women.

Based on these considerations, the present study asks whether heterosexual men apply the same gaze behavior toward female-looking robots as toward women. The implicit measurement of eye tracking enables unbiased insights into the visual attention toward women and sexualized robots, as it is not influenced by social desirability, which is particularly important given that the theme of sex robots might lead to biased reactions. Garza et al. (2016), who themselves conducted an eye-tracking study on the perception of the female body, highlight why eye tracking is useful in this research area by stating that “Eye movements provide a ‘true’ measure because they reflect ongoing mental processes in real time, whereas ratings are typically ‘post hoc’ processes that rely more on problem solving strategies” (p. 14). Moreover, we are interested in whether the robots’ appearance, in terms of how human-like or machine-like they look, influences gaze patterns. Additionally, we examined whether this would influence people’s visual attention insofar as unusual aspects would lead to more detailed exploration. As sexual interactions with inanimate objects like robots deviate from sexual norms (Abramson and Pinkerton, 1995; Worthen, 2016), responses to explicit measurements are likely to be influenced by social desirability and reflections on societal and sexual norm adherence. This problem can be avoided by using eye tracking to measure eye movements, as studies have found that eye movements quantify visual attention without an influence of social desirability. For instance, an empirical study by Fromberger et al. (2012) indicated that it is possible to determine a person’s sexual orientation based on gaze pattern, which in the case of explicit measurements may also be influenced by processes of social desirability. The present study therefore aims to contribute unbiased empirical data regarding men’s initial reactions to robotic replications of women. To further scrutinize whether evolutionary aspects play a role, in the sense that gaze patterns are caused by the unconscious intention to check for mate value, we included heterosexual women and homosexual men as control groups. Furthermore, we assessed different personality traits as well as participants’ evaluations of the robots (including ratings of attractiveness) in order to examine their potential explanatory power regarding the amount of time participants spend looking at different body regions of the robots. Overall, the present study aims to provide further insights into how sexualized robots are perceived in contrast to women. As such, the work contribute to the discussion on sexualized robots, which has so far primarily been based on the work of scholars who discuss normative questions (Levy, 2008; Richardson, 2016).

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