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Humans feel empathic embarrassment for humiliated robots

A new virtual reality study reveals that humans can feel empathic embarrassment for robots that are in embarrassing situations. The results also suggest that humans have cognitive empathy – the ability to understand another’s feelings – for humiliated robots

The research offers a deeper understanding of the emotional dynamics that characterize our interactions with artificial entities.

The study was conducted by researchers at Toyohashi University of Technology, including Harin Hapuarachchi and Professor Michiteru Kitazaki. 

Focus of the study

The goal was to discern if humans showcase empathic reactions towards robots in situations of discomfort or embarrassment.

“Humans feel empathic embarrassment by witnessing others go through embarrassing situations. We examined whether we feel such empathic embarrassment even with robot avatars,” explained the researchers.

Humans empathize with robot pain

The experts noted that previous studies have provided evidence of humans’ ability to empathize with pain experienced by robots.

“These studies suggest that during painful scenarios or mistreatment, people do show a tendency of showing empathy for robots as well even though it is lower compared to the level of empathy felt with other humans,” wrote the researchers.

“Since these previous studies on empathy for robots are focused on mistreatment or pain, in this study we focused on another emotion, ’empathic embarrassment’ felt with robots compared to humans.”

How the research was conducted 

For the current study, participants were placed in virtual environments where they observed both human and robot avatars navigating either mildly embarrassing or non-embarrassing scenarios. 

These situations were meticulously crafted to induce feelings of discomfort or the sense of making a mistake.

“We utilized virtual reality (VR) to simulate a virtual environment in which participants were immersed with a robot character or a human character going through embarrassing situations among a crowd of people (virtual human avatars),” wrote the researchers.

“As a control condition, we also created non-embarrassing scenes for the same situations and compared with the subjective ratings and skin conductance responses collected in the embarrassing condition.”

Empathic responses 

To capture the participants’ genuine reactions, the study integrated both subjective ratings on a 7-point Likert scale and physiological measurements via skin conductance responses – a known indicator of emotional arousal. 

The participants were required to gauge their own feelings of empathic embarrassment and also estimate the avatar’s feelings in each situation.

The results were intriguing. The study participants reported experiencing empathic embarrassment and cognitive empathy for both human and robot avatars. 

Notably, these empathic feelings spiked in embarrassing contexts, regardless of whether the protagonist was a human or a robot.


“The empathic embarrassment was not only cognitive inference, but also felt as self-embarrassment,” noted the study authors.  

“Thus, humans can empathize with robots in embarrassing situations, suggesting that humans assume the robots can be aware of being witnessed and have some degree of self-consciousness based on self-reflection and self-evaluation.”

Cognitive empathy 

When the researchers compared responses towards human and robot avatars, they found that cognitive empathy was stronger when the antagonist was human. 

This divergence in cognitive empathy levels indicates that while humans can empathize with robots, our understanding of their emotions might not mirror that of our fellow humans.

Valuable insights 

“Our study provides valuable insights into the evolving nature of human-robot relationships. As technology continues to integrate into our daily lives, understanding the emotional responses we have towards robots is crucial,” said Hapuarachchi, the lead researcher.

“This research opens up new avenues for exploring the boundaries of human empathy and the potential challenges and benefits of human-robot interactions.”

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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