Avatars. Avatars are images that represent either a person or some other sentient guide to a program. Avatars are used across a variety of settings, from IKEA’s Anna (who will helpfully guide you to their bedroom department if you complain about your saggy mattress) to the iPhone’s Siri. In healthcare, one intriguing use of avatars has been the work of Timothy Bickmore and the Relational Agents Group at Northeastern University. This team has created cartoon-based avatars that walk hospital patients through discharge instructions using an interactive question-and-answer system. While a clinical trial of the system is still ongoing, early results indicate that patients feel comfortable talking with the avatar and are satisfied with the interaction. More impressive, many patients actually prefer talking to the avatar over a live health care professional. They feel supported and listened to by the avatar.

It’s important to note that Bickmore’s avatars are not hyper-realistic. They are clearly cartoon animations. Yet, patients in the trial are able to form an emotional bond with the avatars. This is due to a phenomenon called anthropomorphization. This is when people assign human qualities to non-human objects, and it is most likely to happen when the object shares some characteristics with humans and when we are motivated to engage socially with the object (see Waytz, Eppley, & Cacioppo, 2010, for a review). Essentially, people looking for a social connection can create one even with an object that they know not to be human. This creates a feeling of relatedness in the absence of a live human being on the other end of the interaction. Although, lest you forget the dark side of anthropomorphism, do you remember Microsoft’s paperclip “helper”?