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A Virtual Emotional Freedom Practitioner to Deliver Physical and Emotional Therapy

Citation:  Ranjbartabar, H., A THESIS SUBMITTED TO MACQUARIE UNIVERSITY FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF RESEARCH DEPARTMENT OF COMPUTING, MAY 03, 2016. Full paper.

Abstract

The role of virtual humans in a range of health scenarios, including therapy and counselling, is being explored as a substitute for human therapists and counsellors. This research study investigates the potential benefits of a virtual practitioner to deliver the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). EFT is a kind of psychological acupressure technique to optimize emotional and physical health. Importantly, our study compares two different types of virtual therapists; one that exhibits empathic behaviour and another that delivers the therapy in a neutral manner. Our experimental design, consisting of one within-subjects factor (empathic/neutral therapist) and one between-subjects factor (order), measured the differences in emotional outcomes and sense of rapport. Our evaluation with 63 participants showed benefits for both virtual therapists. While both therapists achieved the same level of rapport, when order was taken into account, the empathic agent received higher ratings for sense of rapport in the second interaction. We conclude that with increased tailoring, the empathic agent would create a stronger sense of rapport than the neutral agent. It remains an open question whether increased tailoring and more empathic behaviours, would result in significant improvements in the emotional benefits delivered by an empathic agent over a neutral and less tailored agent.

Craig’s Notes

This unusual study was a thesis project that investigated the potential benefits of the delivery of EFT by a virtual human. It also compared two types of virtual therapists; one exhibiting empathic behavior, and the other delivering the EFT therapy in a neutral manner. The researcher defined an empathic virtual therapist as one that is programmed to take into account the emotional state of the client and responds in a caring manner. The aim was to see whether empathic therapists could achieve greater emotional benefits when administering EFT to their clients.

A total of 63 psychology students participated in the study, although some did not follow through to completion. Two versions of study were executed, one was online semi-interactive design, using videos of the virtual therapist, and the other consisted of onsite interacting between virtual therapist and participant. Each participant was randomly assigned to two different groups. In the first group participants interacted with an empathic virtual therapist followed by a neutral virtual therapist while in the second group participants engaged with the neutral virtual therapist followed by the empathic one. The duration of the both studies was 15 to 20 minutes. These were very short EFT sessions, which consisted of the participant stating the emotional problem and then tapping while going through a series of affirmations related to improving the problem.

The results were not significantly different between the two studies. Participants reported receiving some emotional benefit from both the neutral and empathic virtual EFT practitioners. The benefit was greater after the first interaction for both groups. Participants did report feeling more sense of rapport with the empathic therapist in the second round where it had the ability to tailor responses based on the user’s score.

The researchers did receive some comments about it being a bit uncomfortable working with the designed virtual therapist, such as, “First thing I noticed was Effie’s eyes that looked a bit unnatural and little off putting”.

The author of the study concluded that there is some beneficial potential for EFT being delivered in this virtual manner, but that improvements could be made in the design of the virtual therapist.