A group of researchers from the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to come to the finding, tracking blood flow in the brains of 14 study participants when they were shown videos of humans, robots and inanimate objects being treated either affectionately or harshly. The researchers, who will present their findings at the June International Communication Association conference in London, found that when participants were shown videos of a robot (a product called Pleo, which resembles a dinosaur) petted, tickled and fed, areas in their limbic structures—a region of the brain believed to be involved in emotional responses—activated. When they were shown videos of a human getting a massage, the same sorts of neural activity occurred.
The same pattern also occurred when the participants were shown videos of the robots and humans being treated harshly—shaken, dropped or suffocated with a plastic bag—but with a twist. Interestingly, their fMRI results showed levels of limbic activity much greater when they saw humans treated poorly than when they saw the robots. This correlated with the responses on surveys that the participants took after watching the videos, on which they reported some empathy for the robots, but more for the humans.