Social robots as treatment agents: pilot randomized controlled trial to deliver a behavior change intervention

Nicole L. Robinson, Jennifer Connolly, Leanne Hides, David J. Kavanagh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Social robots are increasingly demonstrating effectiveness as low-intensity behavior change agents. Key targets for these behavioral interventions include daily lifestyle behaviors with significant health consequences, such as the consumption of high-calorie foods and drinks (‘snacks’). A pilot randomized controlled trial using a stepped-wedge design was conducted to determine the efficacy of a motivational intervention by an autonomous robot, to help reduce high-calorie snacks. Twenty-six adults were randomized to receive Immediate or 4-week Delayed treatment, with assessments at Baseline and Weeks 4 and 8. The treatment comprised motivation enhancement and self-management training using mental imagery (Functional Imagery Training). A significant condition by time effect for snack episode reduction was obtained, F(2, 32.06) = 4.30, p = .022. The Immediate condition significantly reduced snacking between Baseline and Week 4 (d = −1.06), while the Delayed condition did not (d = −0.08). Immediate participants maintained their improvement between Weeks 4 and 8 (d = −0.18), and Delayed participants then showed a significant fall (d = −1.42). Overall, ‘Immediate’ participants decreased their snack episodes by 54% and ‘Delayed’ decreased by 62% from Baseline to Week 8, and an average weight reduction of 4.4 kg was seen across over the first 2 weeks of treatment. Four weeks after starting the intervention, both conditions had significant increases in perceived confidence to control snack intake for time duration, specific scenarios and emotional states (d = 0.61 to 1.42). Working alliance was significantly correlated with reduced snack episodes. The pilot's results appear to suggest that the robot-delivered intervention may be as effective as a human clinician delivering a similar intervention. The robot-delivered pilot achieved similar snack episode reduction in the first four weeks (FIT-R, 55%) when compared with the human-delivered version by a trained clinician (FIT-H, 49%). Overall, the results provide preliminary evidence for an autonomous social robot to deliver a low-intensity treatment on dietary intake without the need for human intervention. Future trials should extend the deployment of the robot-delivered intervention protocol to other low-intensity behavioral outcomes.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100320
Number of pages11
JournalInternet Interventions
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020


  • Social robot
  • Healthcare
  • Motivation
  • Intervention
  • Imagery

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