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28-09-2018

An EU-funded project is exploring what keeps people committed to a task even when they get bored, distracted or are tempted to stop. The findings could foster productivity-boosting strategies, improve robot-human interactions and even help treat borderline personality disorder.

Commitment plays a crucial role in many aspects of our lives, be it in relationships, at work or, more practically, how we approach exercise or rehab and other programmes that require long-term dedication to be effective.
But despite having a significant influence on how we behave, experts do not fully understand how we assess our own levels of commitment and those of others.
The EU-funded SENSE OF COMMITMENT project is seeking to fill this scientific knowledge gap through research that could have an impact in a surprisingly wide range of areas – including how robots interact with humans. It could even hold promise for better treating borderline personality disorder, a mental illness that often results in relationship problems.
‘This kind of research will help keep the EU at the forefront of innovation in robotics but also productivity – maintaining motivation in companies – and health,’ says John Michael of the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, who received a grant from the EU's European Research Council (ERC) for the project.

Coordination is key

Through experiments with healthy adults, Michael and his collaborators have found evidence that coordination on a given task between two or more people can spark a sense of commitment, making those individuals more likely to stick with it. Coordinated decision-making has a similar effect, they found, leading those involved to resist tempting alternatives.
These findings could be fodder for guidelines on how best to motivate people and boost productivity in a variety of different settings, Michael says.
‘We could develop guidelines for training programmes where people have to coordinate with someone else, or somebody getting to do their programme depends on you doing your programme so that you’re interdependent – things like this,’ he says.
In addition, the researchers found evidence to support the hypothesis that the perception of a partner’s effort elicits a sense of commitment towards a joint undertaking, leading to increased persistence when tempted to drop out. This, they discovered, is also the case when one’s partner is a robot.

Retooling robots

Working with the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, Italy, the project team is carrying out experiments with robots that could improve how they interact with people. With robots poised to become more present in years to come, this could be important in settings such as retirement homes or during rescue operations.
‘There is already – and is going to be – an issue with robots not always working as well as they should be. Sometimes being too slow, making mistakes,’ says Michael.
‘If we can figure out design features that will help to create the impression that they’re at least trying and are investing effort, then we hope that people will be more patient about putting up with little peccadilloes like that, and won’t lose interest, disengage and become frustrated.’
Michael and his team are also taking a closer look at the interpersonal difficulties experienced by people with borderline personality disorder, who often have issues assessing the appropriate level of commitment or intimacy in their dealings with others.
Around 45 % of individuals with the disorder have significant histories of unemployment and around 8 % commit suicide, Michael notes, adding that improving their situation could boost both their quality of life and cut healthcare costs. Ultimately, this could even save lives, he adds.
The team is about to carry out studies in collaboration with colleagues at University College London and the Anna Freud Centre in London, a world leader in research on borderline personality disorder.
‘By learning how their thought processes around commitment differ from the general population, we might be able to shed light on the cognitive processes underpinning people’s responsiveness to commitment,’ Michael explains. ‘This could also shed light on the kinds of triggers for episodes they have, for early diagnosis, possibly for treatment.’.

John Michael completed his PhD in philosophy at the University of Vienna in 2010. Since 2016 he has been Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick and Affiliated Researcher the Department of Cognitive Science of the CEU in Budapest. His research interests include the sense of commitment, self-control, cooperation and joint action. He currently holds an ERC starting grant investigating the sense of commitment in joint action.

This article was first published in the European Commission Research and Innovation Info centre