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Research & Studies

First Impressions Count! The Role of the Human’s Emotional State on Rapport Established with an Empathic Versus Neutral Virtual Therapist

Citation (APA style): Ranjbartabar, H., Richards, D., Bilgin, A., & Kutay, C. (2021). First impressions count! The role of the human’s emotional state on rapport established with an empathic versus neutral virtual therapist. IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing, 12(3), 788–800. doi:10.1109/TAFFC.2019.2899305


Intelligent virtual agents are being endowed with empathic behaviors to perform roles such as virtual therapists. Studies often evaluate the level of rapport established, but do not measure the therapeutic benefit and the relative advantage of empathic versus neutral behaviors. We have created two virtual (empathic/neutral) therapists. Our experiment with 63 participants consisted of one within-subjects (empathic/neutral) and one between-subjects (order) factors. Regardless of the virtual therapist used, improvements in baseline emotion were reported after the first interaction (time one) and further improvement after the second interaction (time two). Our study reveals that if the human initially expresses strong emotional feeling for a problem they are facing, rapport will be higher for the empathic therapist and the level of rapport established at the first meeting will persist regardless of whether the second encounter used empathic or neutral dialogue. Conversely, participants experiencing low emotional feeling reported greater rapport with the neutral therapist, and that level of rapport persisted in the second encounter with the alternative therapist. This study shows that an empathic agent will not necessarily build more rapport or deliver better emotional outcomes than a neutral agent. Further studies are needed to determine when tailoring and complex behaviors are justified.


intelligent virtual agents, empathic agents, virtual therapist