Imagine shopping online for a personal item you’d rather keep private. Would you prefer talking to a human or a chatbot?

Recent researches show that chatbots — when clearly identified and not overly humanised — help consumers feel less embarrassed during such purchases. The paper “Avoiding Embarrassment Online: Response to and Inferences about Chatbots when Purchases Activate Self-Presentation Concerns” by Jianna Jin, Jesse Walker, and Rebecca Walker Reczek, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology investigates this question.

Role of ambiguity

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in customer service has revolutionised how people shop online. Chatbots, a type of conversational AI, often operate behind the scenes, sometimes with ambiguous identities that can lead consumers to believe that they are interacting with a human. This ambiguity becomes particularly relevant when self-presentation concerns are at play.

Self-presentation is about controlling the impressions others form of us, especially during potentially embarrassing purchases. Jianna Jin and her colleagues explored how these concerns affect consumer interactions with chatbots versus human agents. They hypothesised that consumers with high self-presentation concerns would see an ambiguous chat agent to be human to brace for potential embarrassment.

The study confirmed this hypothesis: consumers with higher self-presentation concerns were more likely to assume an ambiguous agent was human. This inference serves as a psychological buffer, allowing them to prepare for any potential judgment, even if the agent turns out to be a bot. This aligns with the principles of Error Management Theory, which suggests that people make biased inferences under uncertainty to avoid more costly errors.

Comfort of Knowing

The research also examined consumer responses to clearly identified chatbots. Contrary to earlier findings suggesting negative reactions to known chatbots, Jin and her team found that consumers preferred clearly identified chatbots over human agents when self-presentation concerns were active. This preference stems from the perception that chatbots possess less “mind”— less capacity for consciousness and emotional judgment — compared to humans.

When consumers know they are interacting with a chatbot, they feel less embarrassed because they believe chatbots lack the emotional and cognitive depth to judge them. However, the study reveals a crucial nuance: the design of the chatbot matters. Anthropomorphised chatbots, which exhibit human-like qualities, increase consumers’ feelings of embarrassment. Thus, less human-like chatbots are better suited for sensitive purchases.

The Perfect Chatbot

The findings have significant implications for businesses aiming to improve customer experience, particularly in sensitive contexts. Clearly identifying chatbots can reduce consumer embarrassment and facilitate interactions that might otherwise be avoided.

Businesses should consider avoiding overly humanising chatbots in scenarios where self-presentation concerns are likely to be high, such as online pharmacies or stores selling personal care products.

Using non-anthropomorphised chatbots makes customers feel more at ease. By balancing clear identification and minimal human traits, companies can create a more comfortable and judgment-free shopping experience for their customers.

This approach can lead to practical benefits, such as increased consumer engagement. For example, consumers were more likely to leave their email addresses after interacting with a clearly identified, non-anthropomorphised chatbot compared to a human agent, indicating higher trust and comfort levels.

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