Danger, Will Robinson!

Do you remember this?


Peripheral people prefer smiling T-birds to frowning T-birds almost 2 to 1.  Wow.  How about this?

Sara Kim and Ann McGill pushed this line of reasoning to study the interacting effects of anthropomorphics and power for their impact on risk perception in a 2011 JCR paper (pdf).  They reason that when people are presented with information cast with an anthropomorphic form (looking or sounding like a human), but feel low social power, they will perceive that information as more threatening or risky.  Consider their first study with Slot Machines.

They recruited college adults for an experiment that was delivered through a computer.  To manipulate situational social power, Kim and McGill randomly assigned participants to either:  recall and write about a time when they were powerful in some social situation (High Power) or recall and write about a time when they were powerless (Low Power).  This kind of manipulation has been proven work as advertised in prior research and is a fairly standard tactic for creating a momentary psychological difference between people that is very useful for experimental settings.

The anthropomorphic manipulation was handled through random assignment to a picture of a Slot Machine.  Specifically,

Anthropomorphism Manipulation. Participants in the risk measurement phase learned that the purpose of the study was to understand people’s attitudes and experiences in a casino. They were asked to imagine that they were in a casino for gambling and had found an available slot machine to play (the one on the computer monitor).

Reconsider the two slot machines.  It’s a bit more subtle than the smiling T-bird, but if you focus on the top of the machine, you see two eyes and a nose, right?

The participants were asked to rate their attitude toward playing the slot machine (willingness to play) and the outcome produced the predicted interaction between anthropomorphics and power.

The result revealed a significant interaction effect (F(1, 57)  = 19.63, p < .01) but no other significant effects . . . Specific contrasts revealed that participants in the high-power conditions were more willing to play the game when the slot machine looked more like a human (M High = 4.13, M Low = 2.27; F(1, 57) = 16.36, p < .01). However, participants in the low-power conditions indicated that they were less likely to play the game when the slot looked more like a human (M High = 2.71, M Low = 3.71; F(1, 57) = 4.89, p < .05).

Here’s a figure that illustrates this crossover interaction.

The d effect sizes for each comparison are 1.02 and .58, respectively, which translates into Larger, 25/75, and Medium, 35/65, Windowpanes.  These are obvious and practical effects.

Thus, dead objects that look more human have an impact on people and how they view threat and risk, but this effect is moderated by that situational sense of social power.  If you feel low power, that human looking slot machine is more dangerous, but if you’re in control of your world, the face is inviting.

Kim and McGill add two experiments to this basic finding, extending it to a different kind of risk, skin cancer, a different way of anthropomorphizing an object, a written description, and finally, turning the hypothesis around and demonstrating how power and risk manipulate perception of an ambiguous machine, high power sees a person while low power sees a machine.  Combined, the three experiments are yet another example of great science as smart researchers turn a hypothesis like a diamond in the light of different experiments, revealing the facets of understanding.

The practical upshot of this is our understanding of human appearing objects.  That Smiling T-bird research shows the friendly face effect.  But, when that smiling face is associated with risk, threat, and variations in power, the effect is very different.  With a positive, or at least neutral, object like a car, Smiling is a main effect and its all good.  With a risky object like slot machines and diseases, human qualities are threatening to low power perceivers, yet less daunting to high power perceivers.

Do a persuasion analysis on Smiling T-birds and Human Slot Machines.

See the multiple functions.  The same persuasion variable, that anthropomorphic appearance, creates different effects under different conditions.  And people wonder why persuasion is so difficult.  A smile is a smile except when a smile is a threat.

See how power manipulates psychology.  When you’re Feeling It, smiling threats don’t worry you, but when you’re Not, that smile is as menacing as a hitman’s sneer.  Something as fundamental as a smile can be manipulated with the larger forces of threat and power.

See the Peripheral Route.  Nothing here suggests a High WATT processor toiling along the Central Route with that Long Conversation in the Head.  Ding-Dong, I’m Hot, Ding-Dong, It’s Human, Ding-Dong, place my bet.  Participants skip along the Peripheral Route, their rock tossed over the surface depending upon risk, power, and face-y machines.

See human nature in persuasion.  Gambling with a human face?  Smiling cars?

Sara Kim and Ann L. McGill. (2011).  Gaming with Mr. Slot or Gaming the Slot Machine? Power, Anthropomorphism, and Risk Perception.” Journal of Consumer Research, June 2011.

P.S.  Danger, Will Robinson!