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Bonding with Robotic Pets. Children's Cognitions, Emotions and Behaviors towards Pet-Robots. Applications in a Robot Assisted Quality of Life Intervention in a Pediatric Hospital

By Marta Díaz Boladeras

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This dissertation addresses the emergence of emotional involvement in the interaction with social robots. More specifically, we investigate the dynamics of children bonding with robotic pets to design robot based programs to improve patients’ experience in pediatric hospitals. Pet-robots are robots that mimic real pets as dogs or cats, both in appearance and in behavior. We assume that gaining understanding of the emotional dimension of children/pet-robots interaction would contribute to evaluate the impact of pet-robots in children’s lives, and to inform both robots’ design and robot-based applications for health and wellbeing. First, this research presents a novel model of bonding with robotic pets inspired in the human-animal affiliation and particularly in child-dog relatedness, where bonding is envisaged as a process towards companionship that evolves through three stages –first impression, short-term interaction and lasting relationship- characterized by distinguishable patterns of behaviors, cognitions and feelings that can be identified and measured. Secondly, a behavioral analysis of children interacting with the Pleo robot -a robotic pet shaped as a baby dinosaur-, with an emphasis on the interactional surface and particularly on the sequences of dyad’s reciprocal exchange is presented. The outcomes are twofold: the ethograms and coding schemes of Pleo’s and children’s behaviors and a higher level categorization of behaviors involved in bond forming that can be applied to other platforms and users. Thirdly, a naturalistic study carried out in a pediatric hospital to observe the interactive practices with the Pleo robot in the wild and to evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of a Pleo-based intervention to accompany children is analyzed and discussed. Inspired on the beneficial effects of real pets’ company, the study consisted in an intensive ethnography, a systematic observation of a group play session and a follow-up case study of an experience of adopting a Pleo. Our results show that the key mechanism driving bond forming is the robot’s capability to deploy credible attachment behaviors –proximity seeking and resource soliciting- that elicit complementary nurturing and play behaviors in children. Beyond the novelty effect, self-reinforcing processes as learning and evolution can keep children engaged in rewarding interaction with the robot over time. Moreover, Pleo’s versatility allows diverse modalities of interaction and individual and group play, satisfying different needs as company, technological curiosity, entertainment and social facilitation both for normatively developed children and for children with special needs and their families. In general, the introduction of robot-based play was regarded by the hospital professionals not only as compatible with their daily day practice but valuable as a regular resource to smooth children’s stay at the hospital.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2017
Pages 384
Department Department of Social Psychology and Quantitative Psychology
Degree Doctor in Psychology
Language English
University Universitat de Barcelona
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Animal roles
  3. Human-computer interaction.
  4. open access
  5. Pets and companion animals
  6. Psychiatry and psychology
  7. robotic animals
  8. robots
  1. open access