Humans Can Concentrate Better When a Mean Robot is Watching Them

Children walk with a 'Meccanoid G15 KS' robot in London, England. The Meccanoid robot was rude to participants in this study, which helped them concentrate. ROB STOTHARD/GETTY IMAGES

A mean robot can help people concentrate, new research has found.

Researchers from French and Swiss institutions discovered that when a robot is rude to a person before they begin a concentration test, the person will perform better. Published in Science Robotics on Wednesday, the study described the results of human interactions with an occasionally mean robot.

The scientists set out to discover if humans respond to pressure from robots in the same way they do to other humans. In the experiment, the humans started by completing the Stroop Task, a psychological task where participants must determine the color of the word, not the meaning of the word. The test is meant to determine a person's attention and cognitive ability. In the test, the word "green" will be shown in red ink, and the person must pick "red" as the color, not "green." The steps repeat with different word and color combinations. A sample of the test can be found here.

After they completed the task, they interacted with a Meccanoid robot, a personal robot that people can customize. The participants asked the robot a question and it responded in either a kind or mean fashion.

If the participant asked, for example, "For what in your life do you feel most grateful?" the robot would respond "To meet and discuss with people, to have moments of exchanges like this one, all this is very pleasant" when being kind, and "I enjoy doing analysis and evaluating programs but you would not understand" when being mean.

After the conversation, the volunteers completed the Stroop Task again while the robot watched them. The scientists found that people who talked to the mean robot performed slightly better during the second round of testing. Those who spoke with the kind robot performed the same as a control group, which did not interact with a robot.

The scientists said that those who spoke with the mean robot even appeared more alert. This is the latest in multiple recent studies about how humans interact with robots, including one earlier this summer that showed robots could emotionally manipulate humans.