Virtually in love: the role of romantic anthropomorphism in the digital age
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/07/2022
Introduction: Romantic relationships are a cornerstone of human nature. Today, the needs and benefits of romantic relationships have the potential to be fulfilled by virtual agents (VAs). Although previous psychological research has examined how human needs can be met by anthropomorphised agents, this research has not much considered virtual romantic relationships. Aims: This thesis therefore aims to introduce the concept of romantic anthropomorphism (i.e. giving a non-human agent human-like characteristics in a romantic context) to help understand virtual romance. Specifically, we explored the factors that might contribute to developing a romantic relationship with a VA. To examine virtual romance, we use romantic video games (RVGs) for our two online-based and three laboratory-based studies. RVGs provide people with the opportunity to select, build and enjoy a romantic relationship with a VA. Depending on the player’s answers, the agent’s responses and behaviours towards the player will change. Some people anthropomorphise and fall in love with virtual romantic partners in RVGs. This thesis sets out three major parts. First, this thesis employs social psychological research and theory to review anthropomorphism and romantic relationships. Specifically, we focus on how, why and when people come to anthropomorphise in the digital age. The definition of digital age is the era where computer and technology is largely and widely available to humans. Moving beyond static representations of VAs, we examine the dynamics of human-VA relationships and how they encroach on the closest of human relationships; virtual romance. Secondly, it explores what factors attract people to play RVGs (Study 1 and 2). Finally, it aimed to investigate how romantic anthropomorphism predicts relationship authenticity, desire for real-world relationships, mood and real-world behaviour (Study 3,4 and 5). Method: In Study 1, 43 Japanese participants completed the online survey about their desire to play RVGs and the importance of voice and touch in RVGs. In Study 2, 281 Japanese participants replicated the results of Study 1 regarding the importance of voice and touch in RVGs. The study also examined the anticipated benefits of playing RVGs. In Study 3, 4 and 5, female participants (Study 5: heterosexual female participants) completed the survey before and after playing an RVG for 30 minutes in the laboratory. In Study 5, participants also participated in an interview with an attractive male confederate at the end of the experiment. Results: Two online studies (Study 1 and 2) revealed that a human-like voice and the use of touch were perceived as important factors in anthropomorphised relationships. Moreover, the subsequent studies found that a desire to develop social skills and alleviate negative emotions increases the desire to play RVGs. Three experimental results (Study 3,4, and 5) and internal meta-analysis revealed and successfully replicated that the romantic anthropomorphism of a VA predicted the desire for a real-world virtual relationship, and that greater positive affect via feeling that the relationship built with the VA was authentic. However, playing RVGs did not predict real-world behaviour in a subsequent interaction with a human confederate. Discussion: The most important contribution of this thesis is to cultivate the new concept of ‘romantic anthropomorphism’ and provide the foundations to understand the psychological mechanism of building authentic relationships with a VA. Moreover, this thesis displays a new direction for the field of anthropomorphism for romance in the digital age.