In our own image? Emotional and neural processing differences when observing human–human vs human–robot interactions

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Notwithstanding the significant role that human–robot interactions (HRI) will play in the near future, limited research has explored the neural correlates of feeling eerie in response to social robots. To address this empirical lacuna, the current investigation examined brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging while a group of participants (n = 26) viewed a series of human–human interactions (HHI) and HRI. Although brain sites constituting the mentalizing network were found to respond to both types of interactions, systematic neural variation across sites signaled diverging social-cognitive strategies during HHI and HRI processing. Specifically, HHI elicited increased activity in the left temporal–parietal junction indicative of situation-specific mental state attributions, whereas HRI recruited the precuneus and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) suggestive of script-based social reasoning. Activity in the VMPFC also tracked feelings of eeriness towards HRI in a parametric manner, revealing a potential neural correlate for a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley. By demonstrating how understanding social interactions depends on the kind of agents involved, this study highlights pivotal sub-routes of impression formation and identifies prominent challenges in the use of humanoid robots.

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