Military personnel are significantly more likely to disclose post-traumatic stress symptoms while being interviewed by a virtual human compared to when they are taking a computer survey, according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI.
The researchers believe that the computer-generated “human” interviewer offers the advantages of anonymity while also giving a sense of social connection and rapport, which can help service men and women reveal more about their mental health symptoms.
Following a tour of duty, the US military evaluates the mental health of its troops with a written survey called the Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA). This survey measures post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, which may include agitation, anxiety, depression, nightmares, and/or disturbing thoughts and feelings.
The results of this survey, however, can affect a respondent’s career prospects in the military. This means that the respondents may be reluctant to be completely honest. In addition, the stigma surrounding mental health problems may deter a person from admitting to symptoms or seeking help.
Earlier research has shown that people are often more likely to provide sensitive information in anonymous surveys, as they feel safer and less exposed. However, human interviewers can build rapport with interviewees, which isn’t possible in an anonymous survey. When an interviewer forms a social connection with an interviewee, they tend to open up more easily.
A computer-generated “human” interviewer could provide a solution that combines the rapport-building skills of real human interviewers with the feelings of anonymity and safety provided by anonymous surveys. These virtual interviewers can use a variety of techniques to build rapport, including a welcoming expression and posture, and being attentive and responsive.
The researchers hypothesized that a virtual interviewer would help soldiers disclose PTSD symptoms more easily. They tested this hypothesis in a group of soldiers who had returned from a year-long deployment in Afghanistan.
The troops completed the official PDHA survey as well as an anonymous version on a computer. They also participated in an anonymous interview with a virtual interviewer, who built rapport beforehand by asking them questions about common post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Strikingly, the troops revealed significantly more PTSD symptoms to the virtual interviewer than in either of the surveys. The research team repeated the experiment in a larger group of soldiers and veterans, this time comparing only the anonymous PDHA survey and an anonymous interview with a virtual interviewer.
In this second experiment, soldiers and veterans with milder PTSD symptoms opened up and disclosed more symptoms to the virtual interviewer compared to the anonymous PDHA survey. This suggests that virtual interviews could help to uncover PTSD symptoms that current interview techniques are unable to detect, and help soldiers gain access to much-needed treatments.
“Allowing PTSD to go untreated can potentially have disastrous consequences, including suicide attempts,” says Gale Lucas of the University of Southern California.
“These kinds of technologies could provide soldiers a safe way to get feedback about their risks for post-traumatic stress disorder. By receiving anonymous feedback from a virtual human interviewer that they are at risk for PTSD, they could be encouraged to seek help without having their symptoms flagged on their military record.”