I stumbled upon Moxie the other day. For those who don’t know, Moxie is a robot toy designed to help children with social-emotional learning. Judging from the commercial, it’s pretty good. By pretty good I don’t mean it’s a good thing. No this is clearly a sign of the impending apocalypse. By good I mean, it seems to be actually be able to listen, respond, and make appropriate facial expressions. I want to take a few moments and discuss the coming robot revolution and it’s impact on the field of psychotherapy (talk about things I never thought I’d say). I’m not excited about it, but I don’t think we can deny that robots are our future. But to understand our future, first we have to take a look at our past.
Harry Harlow and the history of co-regulation
Harry Harlow is one of those psychologist we all learn about in psych 101 and promptly forget. He’s the monkey guy.
In 1958 Harlow conducted the famous Wire Mother experiment. He’d been raising monkeys for nearly two decades for other experiments and had discovered something strange. Many of the baby monkeys had become attached to cloth diapers.
In this study, Harlow took infant monkeys from their biological mothers and gave them two inanimate surrogate mothers: one was a simple construction of wire and wood, and the second was covered in foam rubber and soft terry cloth. The infants were assigned to one of two conditions. In the first, the wire mother had a milk bottle and the cloth mother did not; in the second, the cloth mother had the food while the wire mother had none.
In both conditions, Harlow found that the infant monkeys spent significantly more time with the terry cloth mother than they did with the wire mother. When only the wire mother had food, the babies came to the wire mother to feed and immediately returned to cling to the cloth surrogate.
What he’d discovered was the babies’ attachment to the mother was cue based. The softness of the surrogate was a cue for connection, safety, and love. It’s like the button was pushed and the babies brains were saying “wow, this is the real thing.”
But wait, there’s more:
Harlow’s work showed that infants also turned to inanimate surrogate mothers for comfort when they were faced with new and scary situations. When placed in a novel environment with a surrogate mother, infant monkeys would explore the area, run back to the surrogate mother when startled, and then venture out to explore again. Without a surrogate mother, the infants were paralyzed with fear, huddled in a ball sucking their thumbs. If an alarming noise-making toy was placed in the cage, an infant with a surrogate mother present would explore and attack the toy; without a surrogate mother, the infant would cower in fear.
This is a process called co-regulation. When faced with big emotions the most healthy thing is to turn to our relationships. These monkeys were able to co-regulate with a surrogate.
Moxie the future of co-regulation
So what’s any of this have to do with Moxie?
If you watch the above video it’s pretty clear they are trying to have the robot co-regulate the kid. I used to think humans would never settle for a counterfeit experience from a machine. But history spins a different story. If we’re exposed to the right cues we will have the appropriate experience.
So what are the cues for human coregulation? A higher pitched melodic voice and lots of facial expression.
Moxie hits the right cues.
I’m not saying co-regulating with robots is a good thing. I’m saying it’s happening. People will buy Moxie, or whatever the next robot friend is, people will love it, and people will become genuinely attached to it. If a monkey can love a surrogate mother, a person can love a robot one.
So Moxie is innovative, but there’s something bigger going on here. Currently our society turns to therapists when we have troubles with social emotional learning. Schools deploy armies of psychologist, therapist, school counselors, aids and social workers to get kids the social emotional help they need. Unfortunately, the field of mental health has remained stagnant for 40 years.
Often times when a field is stagnant like ours is, the biggest innovation comes from an outside source. What this means is I expect companies like Moxie to unlock more about how change happens than I’d like to admit. The sort of innovation and improvements they will bring to our understanding of the therapeutic process will be staggering and awesome. Tech like Moxie are the future of mental health.