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An Integrative Framework for Modeling the Sense of Commitment

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - Sense of Commitment (An Integrative Framework for Modeling the Sense of Commitment)

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2021-06-30

The phenomenon of commitment is a cornerstone of human social life. Commitments make individuals’ behavior predictable in the face of fluctuations in their desires and interests, thereby facilitating the planning and coordination of joint actions involving multiple agents. Moreover, commitments make people willing to perform actions that they would not otherwise perform. For example, an investor may be willing to purchase government bonds because a central banker has made a commitment to maintaining that country’s currency. In general, social objects and institutions such as jobs, money, government and marriage depend for their origin and stability upon the credibility of commitments. Despite the crucial importance of commitment for characteristically human forms of sociality, it is not well understood how people identify and assess the level of their own and others’ commitments. The SENSE OF COMMITMENT developes a theoretical framework for research on commitment, and implements a suite of experimental paradigms for testing predictions generated by the theoretical framework. By focusing on joint actions involving pairs of agents, it illuminates the fundamental mechanisms underlying large-scale human social phenomena.

The SENSE OF COMMITMENT will generate basic scientific knowledge that will be relevant to many disciplines in the social sciences, cognitive sciences, and humanities. The insights gained in the project create a new perspective for:

1) social robotics, by specifying factors that will be useful in designing robots (e.g. for senior citizens’ homes and rescue operations) that participate in commitments with humans;
2) research on pathological conditions such as borderline personality disorder, in which individuals find it difficult to commit to or to rely upon others;
3) identifying factors relevant in sustaining people’s commitment to beneficial long-term programs (skills training for workers, exercise or rehabilitation programs for patients, etc.).

The project consists of five interconnected sub-projects, each with its own objective.

Subproject I aims to specify the situations which elicit a sense of commitment.

Subproject II investigates how situational factors modulate our sense of commitment.

Subproject III develops a theoretical account of the mechanisms underpinning the sense of commitment.

Subproject IV investigates the emergence of the sense of commitment in childhood.

Subproject V investigates the sense of commitment in the context of human-robot interactions.
We have completed and published several studies (Székely and Michael, 2018, Cognition; Chennells and Michael, 2018, Scientific Reports) providing evidence that the perception of a partner's investment of effort in a joint task elicits a sense of commitment, making people more motivated to persist at the joint task even as it becomes more boring or effortful. We have also completed a study (Michael et al, 2016, Cognition) showing that when a joint action is highly coordinated, people observing it perceive the agent to be more committed to it and to persist longer. More recently, we have completed an experiment showing that when people are actually directly engaged in a coordinated activity, this leads them to be more committed to their partner and to make more prosocial decisions for that partner. We are doing a follow-up experiment before we publish this experiment.

To investigate the psychological mechanisms underpinning these effects, we have developed a theoretical distinction between two forms of commitment: 'gritted teeth commitment' and 'engaged commitment'. To illustrate this distinction, it is helpful to think of the following example. You may be committed to your spouse in the sense that you are not even tempted by other potential romantic partners (this is what we might call engaged commitment -- i.e. you are fully engaged in a relationship or an activity and are not distracted or tempted by alternatives). Or you may be committed to your spouse in the sense that you exercise self-control to resist temptations (this is what we might call gritted teeth commitment -- i.e. you force yourself through gritted teeth to resist temptations and distractions). We are now writing a theoretical paper to lay out this distinction and to use it to interpret a range of data from previous research.

We have designed and piloted 6 separate studies investigating the development of a sense of commitment in children. One of these is completed and will be submitted for publication this month. It shows that 2 year-olds can differentiate between an agent abandoning a goal (e.g. the goal of putting a ball into a box) and an agent being interrupted in her pursuit of a the goal. In the latter case (but not in the former case, assuming that she has abandoned the goal because she no longer wants it to be achieved), it would be appropriate to help the agent to achieve the goal. This is an important prerequisite for a separate study in which we are currently investigating whether 2 year-olds help agents to complete goals in part because they prefer actions that are initiated to be completed (commitment to the goal). This will shed light on the earliest and most basic form of commitment: commitment to goals rather than commitment to agents. Pilot data from one of the other studies shows that 3 year-olds are sensitive to coordination in the sense that if there is a high degree of coordination in a joint task, they feel more committed to the task. A theoretical paper on the development of commitment was published as well (Michael and Székely, 2017).

One study extending the aforementioned effects of the perception of a partner's effort to human-robot interaction has been accepted for publication (Székely et al in press). A further study has just been completed showing that people will invest more effort in teaching something to a robot if the robot has been adaptive in interacting with them. Two theoretical papers on commitment and human-robot interaction have been published (Powell and Michael, 2019; Michael and Salice 2016).

We have also extended the research to a patient group, namely to individuals with borderline personality disorder. These individuals have difficulties maintaining stable relationships, and it may be in part due to a difficulty in adapting social expectations and behavior in light of interpersonal commitments and in a manner that is calibrated to the social norms in the community.
We will complete the rest of the 6 developmental studies that we have started, and also design and carry out 3-4 more as follow-ups depending on the results of the current studies. This research will illuminate the basic mechanisms at the core of the sense of commitment.
We have 2 more studies planned with the the robot in order to investigate people's sense of commitment in human-robot interaction.
The studies investigating the mechanisms underpinning the sense of commitment (i.e. gritted teeth and engagement) will be carried out this year, and will provide a basis for future research investigating the neural underpinnings of commitment.
The PI is working on a large theoretical paper which will be the basis for a book to be completed by the end of the project.