"It doesn't matter what you are!" Explaining social effects of agents and avatars
Empirical studies have repeatedly shown that autonomous artificial entities, so-called embodied conversational agents, elicit social behavior on the part of the human interlocutor. Various theoretical approaches have tried to explain this phenomenon: According to the Threshold Model of Social Influence (Blascovich et al., 2002), the social influence of real persons who are represented by avatars will always be high, whereas the influence of an artificial entity depends on the realism of its behavior. Conversely, the Ethopoeia concept (Nass & Moon, 2000) predicts that automatic social reactions are triggered by situations as soon as they include social cues. The presented study evaluates whether participants´ belief in interacting with either an avatar (a virtual representation of a human) or an agent (autonomous virtual person) lead to different social effects. We used a 2 × 2 design with two levels of agency (agent or avatar) and two levels of behavioral realism (showing feedback behavior versus showing no behavior). We found that the belief of interacting with either an avatar or an agent barely resulted in differences with regard to the evaluation of the virtual character or behavioral reactions, whereas higher behavioral realism affected both. It is discussed to what extent the results thus support the Ethopoeia concept.
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