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Are You Ready to Hug a Robot?

A new study investigates whether people like robots that hug us and rub our heads.


KEY POINTS

  • Hugging is a powerful emotional experience that supports mental and physical well-being.

  • Yet in reality, not everyone has someone that can give them a hug if they need one.

  • To address this, scientists are testing out "hug robots" that are able to hug humans.

  • In a study, participants reported enjoying robot hugs more if the bot rubbed their heads while hugging them.

Getting hugged by a loved one tends to be a powerful positive emotional experience. Hugs have been shown to enhance social bonding and emotional well-being and to reduce feelings of loneliness and depression. They may also decrease stress and improve measures of physical and psychological health.


However, not everyone can get a hug every time they need one. Some people are lonely and do not have anyone to hug them. Others may be in long-distance relationships in which it may be not easy to get physical affection from their partner. Older, widowed people who do not feel like moving into a new relationship quickly may receive fewer hugs than they like.


Could Hug Robots Help?


How can this problem be solved?

One idea that scientists have proposed is developing social robots that can hug people. This could, they theorize, offer lonely people the positive effects of getting hugged without the need to know a person who could hug them.


However, designing a hug robot that is a) accepted by people and b) leads to positive emotions and reduced stress is not an easy task for scientists. For example, if the robot is very large and made mostly of metal, or generally has an appearance that evokes a military context, people might be frightened of it, rather than happily hugging it. Therefore, psychological research is needed to design a good hug robot.



New Study: A Robot That Hugs and Rubs Heads

A new study, recently published in the scientific journal International Journal of Social Robotics (Onishi et al., 2023) focused on the development of Moffuly-II, a newly developed hug robot developed based on Moffully, a previous hug robot. Moffully-II looks like a large, humanoid teddy bear and is covered in soft fur. It is two meters tall.


Importantly, Moffully-II can move its arms to perform different gestures during the hug. When two people hug, they often do specific things with their hands, such as clapping the hugged person on the back to signal sympathy. It is important that a hug robot can perform similar gestures, too, to make the hug feel realistic.


Gestures Make a Difference

Moffully-II can perform rubbing gestures (moving the hand for three seconds vertically on the back of the head of the hugged person) and squeezing gestures (holding the back or the head of the hugged person tightly for three seconds). In the study, the scientists wanted to know whether these intra-hug gestures make people like a hug from a robot better.


Volunteers who Moffully-II hugged generally preferred hugs with gestures of gesture-less hugs. When Moffully-II performed a gesture, they felt that the robot was more friendly and safe than when they received a gesture-less hug.


They also thought that Moffully-II felt more intelligent and natural when it performed gestures while hugging them. Moreover, they enjoyed the hug more, compared to hugs without gestures.


When the different types of gestures were compared, volunteers hugged by Moffully-II liked head rubbing the best, followed by back rubbing. Both head squeezing and back squeezing were less preferred than the rubbing gestures.


Designing a Good Hugging Robot Is Not Easy

Taken together, the findings of the study show that it is possible to design a robot that people enjoy to hug. Attention to detail is important here, as the intra-hug gestures played a big role in how much human volunteers enjoyed the hug. Another takeaway from the study was that people liked rubbing gestures the best.


More research is needed to perfect the design of hug robots and for some people, the idea of hugging a robot instead of a real person will always be somewhat uncomfortable. However, despite such concerns, hug robots arguably hold promise for increasing the well-being of people without regular access to hugging—including, perhaps, people in nursing homes struggling with dementia or other problems that keep them from having many social contacts.


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