Voice-Based Agents as Personied Things:
Assimilation and Accommodation as Equilibration
Katrin Etzrodt1 and Sven Engesser1
1 Science and Technology Communication, Technical University Dresden, Dresden, Germany
We aim to investigate the nature of doubt regarding voice-based agents by referring to
Piaget’s ontological object–subject classication “thing” and “person,” its associated equil-
ibration processes, and inuential factors of the situation, the user, and the agent. In two
online surveys, we asked 853 and 435 participants, ranging from 17 to 65 years of age,
to assess Alexa and the Google Assistant. We discovered that only some people viewed
voice-based agents as mere things, whereas the majority classied them into personied
things. However, their classication is fragile and depends basically on the imputation of
subject-like attributes of agency and mind to the voice-based agents, increased by a dyadic
using situation, previous regular interactions, a younger age, and an introverted personality
of the user. We discuss these results in a broader context.
Keywords: articial agents, classication, ontology, social actor, hybrids
When it comes to being social, people are built to make the conservative error:
When in doubt, treat it as human. (Reeves & Nass, 1996, p. 22)
In 2011, Apple launched Siri, the rst commercialized voice-based agent (VBA). More
VBAs have followed rapidly and have entered the habitats of people (Newman, 2018), the
Volume 2, 2021
CONTAC T Katrin Etzrodt • Science and Technology Communication • Technical University Dresden • firstname.lastname@example.org
ISSN 2638-602X (print)/ISSN 2638-6038 (online)
Copyright 2021 Authors. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license.
58 Human-Machine Communication
most popular being the Google Assistant (launched in 2012), Microso’s Cortana (2013),
and Amazon’s Alexa (2014). However, neither users nor scientists have yet been able to
completely grasp the nature of these VBAs (Guzman, 2019). us, clarifying the funda-
mental question of ‘what is it?’ has become one of the main research issues within human-
machine communication (A. Edwards et al., 2020). In this paper, we will explore the nature
of these VBAs by investigating how they are categorized as objects, subjects, or in-between.
We aim at making the classication of commercial VBAs and the associated processes of
“equilibration” (Piaget, 1970/1974) accessible for empirical research.
Both CASA and Social Presence eory argue that VBAs are what Reeves & Nass (1996,
p. 22) describe as objects of doubt. Research under the CASA paradigm (Nass et al., 1994),
postulating that computers are social actors, has provided multifaceted evidence that peo-
ple exhibit diverse social reactions toward various technological artifacts such as traditional
media, computers, avatars, or robots. Social Presence eory (Short et al., 1976) assumes
that these reactions are caused by the perception of mediated social entities as being pres-
ent (Lombard et al., 2017), or by the failure to recognize those entities as articial (K. M.
Lee, 2004), and specically as “non-human” (Latour, 2005). Although even marginal social
cues can trigger social reactions and the feeling of presence (e.g., Reeves & Nass, 1996),
anthropological similarity can further enhance them (e.g., Appel et al., 2012; Horstmann
et al., 2018). In particular, voices are notably powerful indicators of social presence (Reeves
& Nass, 1996) and being able to talk can be an indicator for being alive (Turkle, 1984/2005,
Although a large body of research in the past 30 years has investigated the conse-
quences of this doubt (e.g., the activation of social heuristics), we know very little about the
doubt itself. It is still unclear toward “whom” or “what” (Gunkel, 2020, p. 54) people react
when they are interacting with (articially intelligent) machines. e various terminolo-
gies used to describe them, such as “evocative objects” (Turkle, 1984/2005), “quasi-objects”
or “hybrids” (Latour, 1991/1995), “epistemic things” (Knorr-Cetina, 2001), “non-humans”
(Latour, 2005), “subject objects” (Suchman, 2011), or “social things” (Guzman, 2015) illus-
trate the diculty of capturing their essence. Although denitions dier considerably, com-
mon to all terms is the reference to ambiguous entities possessing both object qualities and
subject qualities, whose unique combination creates new qualities beyond the sum of its
parts (Roßler, 2008). In the paper at hand, we aim at investigating the categorization of these
For this purpose, we will argue that the doubt arises from an irritated ontological
object–subject classication by referring to the epistemologist Piaget (1970/1974). We will
outline how people resolve the irritation through specic equilibration processes by assign-
ing the irritating object to an existing scheme or modifying these schemes gradually.
e second part of the paper is dedicated to inuences on this classication. Research on
articial agents indicates that attributes of the situation (A. Edwards et al., 2019; Purington
et al., 2017), of the users (Epley et al., 2007; E. J. Lee et al., 2000; Woods et al., 2007), and of
the agents themselves (e.g., Nass & Moon, 2000; Reeves & Nass, 1996) may be relevant.
Based on an empirical approach, we designed a scale for the classication, assessed
situational, individual, and technological inuences in an online survey, and validated the
ndings with a second sample. By investigating the degree to which people classify a VBA
as social actor, ranging between thing and person, and the identication of inuences we
Etzrodt and Engesser 59
intend to advance the concept of human–machine communication and contribute to the
Classication of Voice-Based Agents
Voice-based agents like Siri, Alexa, and the Google Assistant are a subtype of articial social
agents, with an operating system based on articial intelligence and natural language pro-
cessing using a disembodied voice emanating from a device (e.g., smartphone, loudspeaker
box) to communicate with the users and execute their tasks. ey are still a reasonably
new technology, meaning that people lack exhaustive previous experience with this unique
conversational interface (Guzman, 2015; Krummheuer, 2015). However, there are signs
for human-machine agent interaction scripts (Gambino et al., 2020), suggesting a gradual
object–subject classication of articial agents. us, we ask to which degree people classify
VBAs into the object–subject classication (RQ1).
Voice-Based Agents as Objects of Doubt
Referring to Piaget’s studies on epistemology (1970/1974), we assume the most fundamen-
tal way of gaining knowledge about a new object is guring out if it is part of the “psycho-
morph” or the “physicomorph” scheme, which are diametrical poles of the same ontological
classication. Turkle (1984/2005, p. 34) referred to these poles as “psychological” and “phys-
ical.” Gunkel (2020, p. 54) arrived at a similar conclusion by referring to Derrida’s distinc-
tion of “who” and “what.” e psychomorph scheme (“who”) is dened by subjects, which
are living beings, equipped with capacities like thinking or feeling, and the potential of
agency (Piaget, 1970/1974, p. 48). us, it is an analog to the scheme “other persons” (Gun-
kel, 2020, p. 54), and used “to understand people and animals” (Turkle, 1984/2005, p. 34).
In contrast, the physicomorph scheme (“what”) is dened by inorganic, non-living objects,
which are suciently comprehensible in terms of precise, logical-mathematical categories,
and deterministic causal laws (Geser, 1989, p. 233). at is, it is an analog to the scheme
“things [that] are mere instruments or tools” (Gunkel, 2020, p. 54), and “used to understand
things” (Turkle, 1984/2005, p. 34). While the physicomorph scheme (hereinaer referred
to as thing theme) results from empirical experience (e.g., physical perception and move-
ment), the psychomorph scheme (hereinaer referred to as person theme) originates in the
introspective experience of a subjectivity (Piaget, 1970/1974). is theoretical approach is
related to the impossible verication of subjectivity (Gunkel, 2020; Turing, 1950) or agency
(Krummheuer, 2015), as well as to the imputation of mental states to objects (Premack &
Woodru, 1978) and the gradual assignment of personhood (Hubbard, 2011), as discussed
prior in Etzrodt (2021).
Despite the growing ability to distinguish between psychomorph and physicomorph
due to the individual’s development and its constant confrontation with the environment
(Piaget, 1970/1974; Turkle, 1984/2005), some objects remain a challenge. Between things
and persons, there exists a wide range of objects (e.g., plants, animals, or articial entities)
that can be regarded as objects of doubt. Recent empirical research conrms the doubtful
nature of various articial social agents: Guzman (2015) noted in her qualitative interviews
a constantly shiing use of the pronouns “she” and “it” when people talked about the VBA
60 Human-Machine Communication
Siri. It seemed that Guzman’s respondents were torn between the association of a person
and a thing, which she traced back to the interviewees’ focus of attention. If their “attention
turns away from Siri the voice or Siri the image to Siri the program, Siri again becomes a
thing” (Guzman, 2015, p. 195); thus, she concludes, people “recognize certain character-
istics of humans and machines within them” (p. 257). A. Edwards (2018) found a similar
inconsistency, when she asked her participants to choose two out of the three entities (social
robot, human, and primate), that had more in common in relation to the third. Although,
participants combined humans and primates in opposition to social robots, based on robots
being articial and non-living things, some coupled robots and humans in reference to
their (assumed) resemblance in embodiment, intellect, and behavior, and the capability to
interact socially through talking and understanding.
Voice-Based Agents as Objects of Equilibration
Once the classication of an object is in doubt, the irritation has to be resolved. People
need to decide if machines are “mere things . . . or someone who matters . . . or something
altogether dierent that is situated in between the one and the other” (Gunkel, 2020, p. 56).
Piaget (1970/1974) refers to this as equilibration—a balancing and self-regulating process,
which is achieved through assimilation or accommodation (Figure 1).
Equilibration of Doubt
Raising of Doubt Irritation
FIGURE 1 Equilibration of Doubt
(Inspired by Piaget, 1970/1974 and Geser, 1989)
Assimilation is the assignment of an irritating object, such as the VBA, to an exist-
ing scheme: the thing scheme (objectication) or the person scheme (subjectication). As
a result, people overestimate either the VBA’s objecthood or subjecthood. Particularly for
Siri, Guzman (2015) found that some people explicitly described it as an entity, while others
viewed it as a device. Similar associations were found by Purington and colleagues (2017)
in the user comments about Alexa (Amazon Echo). ey demonstrated that, although the
objectifying pronoun “it” was used by the majority of the authors, some favored the per-
sonifying pronoun “she.” e preference of objectication is conrmed for social robots by
A. Edwards (2018), where more than half of the respondents regarded social robots as
things in contrast to living and natural subjects such as humans or apes. erefore, we
Etzrodt and Engesser 61
formulate the hypothesis (H1): VBAs are assimilated more oen to the thing scheme than
to the person scheme.
Accommodation refers either to the modication of an existing scheme or to the cre-
ation of a new one (Piaget, 1970/1974). Regarding the modication of the object–subject
classication, the thing scheme can be modied by adding person attributes or the person
scheme can be enriched with thing attributes. Apart from that, people may build a hybrid
scheme, featuring a more or less balanced combination of attributes from things and per-
sons (hybridization). While modication draws on existing heuristics and changes them
slightly, hybridization requires the active acquisition and construction of completely new
Research on VBAs implies accommodation: In addition to the “spectrum from fully
human to fully machine,” Guzman (2015, p. 227) identied an “overlap in the middle” con-
cerning the ontology of Siri, as a result of a recongured “understanding of humans and
machines to the degree that we now share characteristics” (p. 257). Purington and col-
leagues (2017) found a mixed use of the pronouns “she” and “it” for Alexa in the same user
comment. Furthermore, some user reactions suggest accommodation through the simulta-
neous activation of social and non-social scripts, such as inappropriate, rude, or insensitive
social behavior toward articial agents: For example, people abuse social robots (Broad-
bent, 2017), and direct bullying and sexual harassment toward VBAs like Alexa (Cercas
Curry & Rieser, 2018).
Inuences on the Classication of Voice-Based Agents
Although social reactions toward computers are fundamentally human, exist in all groups,
and occur even in the case of weak social cues (Reeves & Nass, 1996), there is evidence that
object–subject classication varies due to factors at the levels of situation, user, and agent.
us, we ask to what extent do factors at the levels of the situation, the user, and the agent
inuence the object–subject classication of VBAs (RQ2)?
Attributes of the Situation
e ontological classication of machines can dier between various situational interac-
tions and social contexts. A. Edwards and colleagues (2019) found that a positive expec-
tancy violation during an initial interaction with a social robot reinforces the feeling of
social presence and reduces uncertainty. Leite and colleagues (2013) suggested a change in
relationship through prolonged interaction. Furthermore, personication increased when
Alexa was embedded in multi-person households such as families (Lopatovska & Williams,
2018; Purington et al., 2017). Against this backdrop, we assume that previous interactions
with VBAs aect the classication (H2) and its use in the presence of others increases the
classication’s preference for the person scheme (H3).
Attributes of the User
Age appears to be a major inuence on classication. Children are known to attribute sub-
ject status to objects in general (Piaget, 1970/1974) and articial agents (Epley et al., 2007;
62 Human-Machine Communication
Turkle, 1984/2005) more strongly than adults do. Apart from that, users’ attributes seem to
aect the perceived attributes of the agents rather than their classication. In this context,
age in general aects perceived similarities between a participant’s and a robot’s personality
traits (Woods et al., 2007). In contrast, the impact of gender appears inconsistent. Gender
neither aects the perception of a social presence for synthesized voices (K. M. Lee & Nass,
2005), nor the evaluation of attery behavior of the VBA (E. J. Lee, 2008). However, the
attribution of personality to robots may be gender-specic (Woods et al., 2007); and match-
ing genders of the user and the VBA alters social reactions (E. J. Lee et al., 2000). Besides,
personality traits of the user have been crucial for research, reecting dierences between
individuals as well as parallels in interaction in general. Although research did not nd
eects of the user’s personality on the perception of social presence, matching personalities
of user and VBA may inuence perceived characteristics—regarding the trait “extravert–
introvert” (Nass & Lee, 2001), and similarity—regarding the trait “neuroticism–emotional
stability” (Woods et al., 2007). Closely related to personality is a person’s anity for tech-
nology (Attig et al., 2017), which is particularly noticeable regarding the novelty of VBAs.
Attributes of the Agent
e VBA’s conversational mode exhibits subject-likeness, involving expressed eective and
meaningful behavior and the imputation of agency and mind. However, it is still unclear to
what extent they are relevant for the object–subject classication.
Agency as expression of eective behavior. Due to the recently increased capabilities
of machines to mimic natural human behavior their genuine agency is conveyed more
strongly (Guzman, 2018). VBAs can directly answer users, communicate with and control
other smart objects in their environment (e.g., switching lights on and o), collect and pres-
ent information from the internet, activate apps, or initiate purchases. us, in the context
of VBAs, the term agency refers to an eect, originating from interaction with the envi-
ronment and other beings, which may be interpreted as behavior similar to humans (e.g.,
A. Edwards, 2018). Within the framework of social interaction theory, this eect refers
to the ability of interdependence (Simmel, 1908) and orientation (Weber, 1922) toward the
behavior of others—thus, they are aecting others and are aected by others. e most
basic indicator for interdependence between VBAs and users is the VBAs’ expression of
receptiveness to vocal commands. For instance, Alexa lights up a blue ring on the Amazon
Echo and a blue line on the Amazon Echo Show to indicate it is “listening.” To demonstrate
the ability of orientation the VBA needs to express attentiveness in the rst place (Biocca et
al., 2003). Alexa does this by additionally turning a brighter light toward the direction of the
sound source in most Echo devices. e feeling of receptivity increases the perception of
sociality—including that of computers (Burgoon et al., 1999) and agency in general (Appel
et al., 2012; Guadagno et al., 2007). However, it is unclear to what degree the VBA’s classi-
cation is altered if their behavior is perceived as eective.
Etzrodt and Engesser 63
Mind as expression of meaningful behavior. e human-like voice and the use of language
are expressions of meaningful behavior, which is closely linked to consciousness (Reichertz,
2014), and a theory of mind (Epley et al., 2007; Premack & Woodru, 1978). us, the
language- and voice-based subjectivity transcends the ability to interact eectively by add-
ing meaning to its actions. Meaningful behavior is crucial for orientation in any social
interaction and based on mutual understanding, on similarity in thinking and/or feeling
(to some degree), and the assumption of intentional actions. at is, before an orienta-
tion toward the actions of others is possible, these actions must be understood based on
one’s own and the anticipated other’s experiences within a shared (natural or social) world
(Schütz, 1974). In particular, the conversational mode of VBAs incorporates such specic
assumptions of similarity in thinking and feeling to a certain degree: First, the use of words of
a certain language, and that VBAs understand these words, refers to a specic shared social
world between users and VBAs. Second, by referring to themselves as “I,” VBAs suggest that
they are person-like, self-conscious entities, which operate according to the same rules as
their human users.
Furthermore, the meaning of actions is closely related to the assumption of intentional-
ity, in contrast to accidental actions or for purely physical reasons (Simmel, 1908). e sim-
plest complex of intentionality that can be attributed to an action are motives (Schütz, 1974).
According to Schütz, it is sucient to put oneself in a typical position with typical motives
and plans. Personality constitutes the origin of these typical motives, attitudes, and mindsets
of persons as subjects. It contains both the assumption about behavior that is based on typi-
cal human nature, typical decisions, reactions, or feelings and on ways in which individuals
dier from each other (Buss, 2008). erefore, a perceived personality suggests a subject
who chose to act in a specic manner, but theoretically could have responded in a dierent
way (Higgins & Scholer, 2008). As a result, if personality is attributed to a VBA its actions
may be no longer viewed as random—regardless of whether they were programmed to imi-
tate intention or whether they are behaving intentionally by nature. Research conrms the
attribution of personality traits to synthetic voices (e.g., C. Edwards et al., 2019; Ray, 1986)
and very specic personalities to the commercial VBAs Alexa and the Google Assistant
(Garcia et al., 2018). However, it is uncertain whether the quantity or quality of perceived
personality traits of the VBA alter the object–subject classication. Previous CASA research
has concentrated on the quality such as the personality trait “extraversion” in interpersonal
interactions and uncovered extraverted voices are generally perceived as more socially pres-
ent (e.g., K. M. Lee, 2004; Nass & Lee, 2001; Nass & Moon, 2000). Although extraversion
may be relevant for social reactions toward VBAs, it is unanswered if extraversion or other
personality traits or that personality traits are attributed in the rst place are relevant for
Research Questions and Hypotheses
An overview of the relevant variables, research questions, and hypothesized inuences can
be found in the theoretical model (see Figure 2).
64 Human-Machine Communication
FIGURE 2 Theoretical Factor Model
In late 2018, we conducted an online survey with a demonstrational design (N = 853) among
all students of a large German university, recruited via the university’s student mailing list
(response rate of 2.6%) and randomly assigned to either the VBA Alexa (Amazon Echo) or
the Google Assistant (Google Home). Participants had a mean age of 24, ranging from 17
to 50 years, 52% of whom were male, 76% were undergraduates, and 23% graduates. e
sample was (on a 6-point scale) above average creative (M = 3.67, SD = 1.00), conscientious
(M = 3.46, SD = 0.86), and emotionally stable (M = 3.2, SD = 0.93), as well as moderately
agreeable (M = 3.1, SD = 0.86) and extraverted (M = 3.1, SD = 1.09). It expressed an anity
for technology above average (M = 4.01, SD = 1.20, 6-point scale).
Most of the participants already knew the names Alexa (96%), and the Google Assis-
tant (71%) in general, and 84% knew their assigned VBA. Although one third owned the
assigned Google Assistant (33%), only some possessed Alexa (7%). e primary sources of
knowing Alexa were indirect ones: advertisement (43%) and contact through other people
(24%), which however, were also important for Google Assistant (17% advertisement, 12%
other people). Other indirect sources were non-ctive media (Alexa: 16%, Google Assis-
tant: 7%) and rarely ctive media (Alexa: 6%, Google Assistant: 1%). If the participants had
used their assigned VBA prior to the survey’s demonstrational interaction, most of them
had used it primarily alone (60%) and moderately frequent (M = 3.3, SD = 1.45, 5-point
According to its average age the student sample belonged to a cohort widely labelled as
Generation Z, which diers from the previous cohort (commonly labeled as Millennials)
Etzrodt and Engesser 65
in political, economic, and social factors (Dimock, 2019; Singh, 2014). Regarding these dif-
ferences of generations and the classication’s development during aging, the study was
repeated with an older sample (Millennials)—all employees of the same university, recruited
via the university’s sta mailing list (response rate of 6.2%)—to validate the ndings and
specify cross-generational eects. e sta sample (N = 435) was, on average, 10 years older
(with a mean age of 33, from 18 to 65 years), 65% were graduates, 26% were undergradu-
ates, and 3% had a doctoral degree. Participants were slightly more conscientious (M = 3.71,
SD = 0.78) and had less anity for technology (M = 3.96, SD = 1.20), however, their prior
experiences with the assigned VBA resembled those of the student sample.
Although both assistants’ German voices were female, they diered in their characters,
the way they were advertised, and their manufacturing companies’ image. To distinguish
between possible variations caused by the mentioned dierences and general classications
of VBAs, one group of participants assessed Alexa, another the Google Assistant. To get
impressions as close as possible to the true perception of the two VBAs, we chose a demon-
strational design by simulating interactions with pre-recorded videos with the original
answers of the voice-based loudspeaker variants of the Google Assistant or Alexa to pre-
dened questions in German (Table A1 in the study’s OSF repository). Before the simulated
interaction, participants reported their previous experiences with various VBAs (including
the assigned VBA) and typical usage situations. During the simulated interaction, they acti-
vated four videos of the VBA’s answer one aer the other by clicking on the question. Aer
the interaction, they classied the VBA and assessed perceived attributes.
Questions for the VBAs were selected that had been advertised previously by Amazon
or Google as preferable interaction features (e.g., in commercials or on the website), and
that had the potential to exhibit personality characteristics of the VBA. If a VBA provided
multiple answers to the same question, we randomly selected one. Because people form
their impressions within the rst few seconds of contact with a voice (Ray, 1986), the video
sequence for each simulated interaction had a duration between 7 and 17 seconds. e vid-
eos can be obtained from this study’s OSF repository.
Object–Subject Classication. To examine the object–subject classication, we drew on
the diametrical relation of the thing scheme and the person scheme described above and
asked participants: “What would you say, is Alexa [or the Google Assistant] rather like
a thing (object) to you or rather like a person (subject)?” Because “person” refers to the
status “personhood,” it can be assumed with Hubbard (2011) that it is a gradual assign-
ment, whose highest degree is represented by the term “person.” To address the continuum
between the schemes we used a 100-point scale, consisting of the two poles “thing (object)”
and “person (subject).”
As discussed in Etzrodt (2021), the broad-scale allowed intuitive answers—independent
of the participant’s ability to verbalize the classication (Turkle, 1984/2005, p. 48). It also
allowed to detect minor forms of accommodation and to distinguish between modication
66 Human-Machine Communication
and hybridization (see Figure 3). As described by the author, classication as the result
of assimilation into the thing or the person scheme refers to the absence of any previous
accommodation, indicated on the scale by the ratings of 1 or 101. us, VBAs are added
to the existing scheme (thing or person), but the scheme itself does neither get in conict
with the other nor does it change. Classication as a result of accommodation depends
on pre-existing structures (Piaget, 1974, p. 34), referring to a change or rearmation of
the categories’ borders (Turkle, 2005). Hence, Etzrodt (2021) concludes, the accommodated
classication is measured by a weak or strong merging of the thing and the person scheme,
implied if people were distancing from one of the poles on the scale. A weak merging is
represented by ratings close to one of the schemes (2–33 and 67–100), indicating the mod-
ication of a dominant scheme by implementing elements of the other. A strong merging
is represented by ratings near the scale’s center (34–66), indicating a hybridization with a
more or less balanced reunion of both schemes. To determine how sophisticated the equil-
ibration process was, we asked how condent participants were in their classication on a
5-point scale (Etzrodt, 2021).
2 - 33 34- 66 67- 100
Thing - Scheme
Person - Scheme
Thing - Scheme
Person - Scheme
FIGURE 3 Equilibration on the Object–Subject Classication Scale (1 to 101),
Attributes of the situation were measured as previous knowledge of and interactions with
the assigned VBA and the social contexts in which these interactions are usually embedded.
Previous knowledge assessed if the participants had ever heard about or knew any VBA—
independent of their assigned VBA. Previous interactions dierentiate between participants
who had contact with their assigned VBA for the rst time through our survey or knew this
VBA solely from ction or non-ction media, advertising, or had seen others using it, but
had none or only minimal prior interactions, and those who had continuous previous inter-
actions through ownership. erefore, the rst group can be assumed to have had none or
only few equilibration processes before the study. In contrast, the latter group was likely to
have had undergone this process several times. In addition, we considered the frequency of
use on a 5-level rating scale from “very occasionally” to “very oen.” We assessed the social
contexts of use by asking if participants usually used the VBA in multi-person contexts
(family, friends, or acquaintances) or dyad contexts (the absence of other people).
Etzrodt and Engesser 67
Attributes of the user were assessed by the user’s personality, anity for technology, and
demographics such as age and gender. Personality was measured with the “Big Five Inven-
tory” short scale using the original 5-level rating scale (Rammstedt et al., 2013). Principal
component analysis (PCA) conrmed the factors agreeableness, conscientiousness, emo-
tional stability, extraversion, culture (creativity) (χ2(45) = 1451.02, p < .001, KMO = .60,
most factor loadings and h2 > .60). “Agreeableness” exhibited the poorest performance and
was interpreted with caution. Anity for Technology was measured with nine items of the
German ATI Scale (Franke et al., 2018), indexed into one component via PCA (χ2(36) =
5375.01, p < .001, KMO = .91, Cronbach’s alpha = .92, factor loadings .63–.88; h2 > .60). e
PCAs in the sta sample conrmed these factors (see OSF).
Attributes of the Agent. Agency was conceptualized as an assigned capability to act,
divided into the three dimensions: similarity to the behavior of the respondent (“Does not
behave like me—behaves like me,” 7-level rating scale), attributed attention of the respec-
tive VBA, and the feeling of interdependence. Subsequent operationalizations were realized
either for Alexa or Google Assistant. For easier reading, only the Alexa variant is provided
in the examples. e two latter dimensions were measured with ve items based on the
reduced relational communication scale by Ramirez (2009), using the original 6-level rating
scale, but formulated for a hypothetical situation (“Imagine you and Alexa are having a con-
versation . . . ”). However, the conrmatory factor analysis (CFA) indicated that these items
loaded on the dimensions attention (“How attentive is Alexa to the interaction?”, “How
strongly is Alexa involved in an interaction?”), and interdependence (“How much is Alexa
adapting to the interaction?”, “How ready is Alexa to have an interaction with you?”, “How
strongly does Alexa respond to your comments or questions?”) suggested by Biocca and
colleagues (2003). To assess convergent validity, the standardized factor loadings, average
variance extracted (AVE), and reliabilities (omega and Cronbach’s alpha) were examined.
e CFA showed both an excellent model t for the dimensions (χ2 (4) = 8.987, GFI = .994,
CFI = .995, TLI = .989, RMSEA = .044) and a moderate convergent validity (AVE >.51,
omega > .68, Cronbach’s alpha > .66), conrmed by the sta sample (see OSF).
Attributes of the Agent. Mind was operationalized as the VBA’s similarity in thinking and
feeling (e.g., “inks like me–does not think like me,” 7-level rating scale), the VBA’s abil-
ity to understand its user (“How well does Alexa understand you?”, 7-level rating scale),
and attributed personality traits. e modied Minimal Redundancy Scale based on Lang
(2008) was used to measure the VBA’s personality on a semantic dierential using the origi-
nal 6-level rating scale, indexed to the Big Five factors. However, not all human personality
traits worked for the VBAs. CFA identied the items warmhearted, seless, over-accurate,
condent, self-contented, open, loving company, and inventive as insucient. Aer their
removal the model produced an excellent t (χ2(80) = 227.330, GFI = .964, CFI = .964,
TLI = .950, RMSEA = .046), a good reliability with most factor loadings larger than 0.7,
and a moderate convergent validity (AVE > 0.40, omega > 0.50), conrmed by the sta
sample (see OSF). As a result, the factor culture includes items exclusively referring to cre-
ativity (creative, imaginable, artistic) and was interpreted accordingly. In line with previous
research (Garcia et al., 2018; Guzman, 2020), participants had problems assigning emotions
to the VBA explaining why the factor emotional stability displays the poorest performance.
68 Human-Machine Communication
e factor was maintained for comparison with subsequent studies but was interpreted
Data was analyzed using R. In particular, the VBAs’ classication and attributes showed
non-normal, mainly positively skewed and heavy-tailed distributions. us, robust
tests (packages WRS2, and robustbase) were used to control the results of common sta-
tistical tests. e stepwise robust regression found several outliers (with weights = 0 or
~= 1). Although, the signicance of the predictors was equal, the estimates diered slightly
between OLS and robust regression. us, to avoid inaccuracy, we report the estimates of
the robust regression. Reported results apply to the student sample and will be validated
by the sta sample. e supplemental tables and gures can be found at this study’s OSF
Equilibration of the Object–Subject Classication
Almost one out of three participants assimilated VBAs into an existing scheme, while more
than two out of three had accommodated their schemes (RQ1, Figure 4).
0 25 50 75 100
0 25 50 75 100
Object–Subject Classification (1 = Thing, 101 = Person)
FIGURE 4 Density Plot and Box Plot‚ of the Equilibration
on the Object-Subject Scale, Student Sample
As predicted (H1), in case people did assimilate, they almost always objectied VBAs
(Table 1). In contrast, apart from two people, the VBAs were not subjectied at all. In case
people accommodated, most of them classied the VBAs into modied schemes primarily
with respect to the thing scheme (49%, Table 1), whereas only a minimal number of people
(2%) modied the person scheme. us, VBAs were mainly classied as things supple-
mented by aspects of a person. However, 17% classied the VBA into a hybridized scheme.
Etzrodt and Engesser 69
TABLE 1 Equilibration of the VBA
Student Sample Sta Sample
Assimilation Thing scheme 263 31.0 141 32.7
Modied thing scheme 419 49.4 208 48.3
Accommodation Hybrid scheme 148 17.4 67 15.6
Modied person scheme 17 2.0 15 3.5
Assimilation Person scheme 2 0.2 0 0.0
Note: On a scale from 1 to 101, 1 = thing, 2 to 33 = modied thing scheme, 34 to 66 = hybrid
scheme, 67 to 100 = modied person scheme, 101 = person scheme
Although most of the participants were quite certain with their classication (M = 4.34,
SD = 0.89), the further they moved away from the thing scheme, the more uncertain they
became, r = –.54, t(842) = –18.56, p < .001. However, the LOESS graph (Figure 5) indicates
that the uncertainty increases if the classication moves away from any existing scheme.
Although very few people subjectied VBAs, they did it with the same level of certainty
as those who objectied them. Consequently, modication and hybridization exhibited
0 25 50 75 100
Object–Subject Classification (1 = Thing, 101 = Person)
Certainty about the Classification
FIGURE 5 Classication Correlated With Certainty
About the Classication, Student Sample
Inuences on the Object–Subject Classication
To identify relevant inuences on the classication (RQ2) we conducted a stepwise robust
regression (SRR). e SRR indicated that more participants classied Alexa further away
from the pole thing than Google Assistant if the previous experienced situations were held
constant (Table 2, Model 2). However, the explained variance was low, and including the
VBAs’ agency eliminated this eect (Table 2, Models 4).
70 Human-Machine Communication
TABLE 2 Stepwise robust regression (M-estimators) using object–subject classication as the criterion, student sample
Model 1 (n = 849) Model 2 (n = 849) Model 3 (n = 831) Model 4 (n = 683) Model 5 (n = 535)
B [CI] β B [CI] β B [CI] β B [CI] β B [CI] β
(Intercept) 14.47 *** [13.00, 15.95] 12.01 *** [9.33, 14.69] 12.91*** [9.90, 15.94] 14.41*** [11.08, 17.76] 17.64*** [13.58, 21.70]
Alexa a) 1.53 [-0.57, 3.63] .09 2.82 *[0.34, 5.29] .16 3.44 ** [0.94, 5.93] .20 1.30 [-1.36, 3.96] .07 1.66 [-1.44, 4.77] .09
Dyad b) 2.79 *[0.30, 5.28] .16 2.38 +[-0.14, 4.90] .14 1.65 [-1.00, 4.30] .09 0.27 [-2.63, 3.16] .02
Frequency of use -0.29 [-1.41, 0.83] -.02 -0.48 [-1.60, 0.65] -.03 0.06 [-1.14, 1.27] .00 0.10 [-1.28, 1.49] .01
Knows VBA in general c) 0.06 [-3.19, 3.31] -.00 -0.99 [-4.28, 2.29] -.06 0.78 [-2.78, 4.34] .04 -0.39 [-4.55, 3.77] -.02
Owns the VBA d) 4.66 ** [1.58, 7.73] .27 4.34 ** [1.23, 7.46] .25 1.47 [-1.80, 4.74] .08 0.47 [-3.26, 4.20] .03
Agreeableness 1.55 ** [0.46, 2.64] .09 0.93 [-0.25, 2.10] .05 0.99 [-0.36, 2.34] .06
Conscientiousness -0.17 [-1.27, 0.92] -.01 0.15 [-1.02, 1.32] .01 0.22 [-1.56, 1.12] -.01
Emotional stability -1.19 *[-2.32, -0.06] -.07 -0.39 [-1.60, 0.82] -.02 -0.48 [-1.84, 0.87] -.03
Extraversion -1.24 *[-2.36, -0.12] -.07 -1.09 [-2.28, 0.10] -.06 -0.45 [-1.81, 0.91] -.03
Culture (creativity) -0.32 [-1.40, 0.76] -.02 0.11 [-1.04, 1.26] .01 0.23 [-1.07, 1.54] .01
Anity for technology 1.42 *[0.16, 2.69] .08 0.52 [-0.84, 1.88] .03 0.19 [-1.36, 1.75] .01
Women e) 0.12 [-2.47, 2.71] .01 0.59 [-2.16, 3.34] .03 -0.64 [-3.77, 2.50] -.04
Age -1.96 *** [-3.03, -0.90] -.11 -0.61 [-1.85, 0.62] -.03 -0.25 [-1.68, 1.17] -.01
Similar behaving 5.16 *** [3.98, 6.35] .29 3.04*** [1.47, 4.61] .17
Interdependence 0.88 [-0.66, 2.42] .05 0.26 [-1.66, 2.17] .01
VBA’s attention 3.45 *** [1.95, 4.94] .20 2.84 ** [1.09, 4.59] .16
Similar thinking 4.01 *** [2.20, 5.82] .23
Similar feeling 1.95 *[0.45, 3.45] .11
VBA’s understanding 1.90 ** [0.47, 3.33] .11
Personality traits (count) 1.71 *[0.18, 3.25] .10
Agreeableness -0.50 [-1.96, 0.95] -.03
Conscientiousness -0.55 [-2.03, 0.93] -.03
Emotional stability -0.14 [-1.55, 1.28] -.01
Extraversion -0.24 [-1.67, 1.18] -.01
Culture (creative) 1.96*[0.43, 3.40] .11
Attention * interdepend. -0.13 [-1.19, 0.92] -.01 -0.48 [-1.79, 0.84] -.03
Sim. behaving * thinking -0.82 [-2.18, 0.54] -.05
Sim. behaving * feeling 1.42 +[-0.03, 2.87] .08
Sim. thinking * feeling -1.34 +[-2.81, 0.13] -.08
R2.002 .02 .07 .22 .34
Change in R2.002 .02 .05 .15 .12
Note. + indicates p < .1 * indicates p < .05. ** indicates p < .01. *** indicates p < .001. Dichotomic variables are compared with following omitted (reference) level: a) Google Assistant,
b) Multi-Person Interaction, c) Does not know any VBAs, d) Knows interaction with VBA secondhand, e) Men and diverse
Etzrodt and Engesser 71
Attributes of the Situation. As predicted in H2, previous interactions aected the classi-
cation (Model 2, Table 2). If people owned the VBA they classied it more distanced from
the pole thing than people who presumably equilibrated their classication for the rst
time. Contrary to our assumption (H3), the absence of other people increased the distancing
from the mere thing scheme. However, the explained variance was still less than 1%, and the
eects disappeared aer including the VBAs’ agency (Table 2, Model 4).
Attributes of the User. As age increased, the classication tended toward the thing scheme
(Table 2, Model 3). In contrast, people with more anity for technology tended to distance
from the mere thing scheme (Table 2, Model 3). In line with K. M. Lee & Nass (2005) the
gender of the user was not signicant at all for the classication. However, personality traits
were. Agreeable users were more inclined to classify the VBA distanced from the thing pole,
while more emotionally stable and extraverted users exhibited objectication tendencies.
Nevertheless, the explanatory power of the model remained small and the inclusion of the
VBAs’ attributes eliminated most eects. Whereas agency negated the eects of age, anity
for technology, emotional stability, and agreeableness (Table 2, Model 4) assumed mind
negated the eects of extraversion (Table 2, Model 5).
Attributes of the Agent. Perceived agency contributed signicantly to a classication dis-
tanced from the mere thing scheme and increased the explained variance to 22% (Table
2, Model 4). e VBAs’ attentiveness (M = 3.3, SD = 1.29) and interdependence (M = 3.9,
SD = 1.23) were rated moderately high, whereas their behavior was not perceived as very
similar (M = 2.1, SD = 1.64). However, only increasing attentiveness and similar behavior
increased a distanced classication from the pole thing. e eects held when mind attri-
butes were added but weakened substantially.
Perceived mind increased the explained variance to 34% (Table 2, Model 5). Although
the similarity of mind was rated low, the VBAs’ thinking (M = 2.12, SD = 1.61) was assumed
to be more similar than their feeling (M = 1.60, SD = 1.61). Consistently, distancing of the
thing scheme was predicted to a higher degree by similarity in thinking than in feeling (Table
2, Model 5). In contrast, the VBAs’ ability to understand the user was rated moderately high
(M = 3.64, SD = 1.67) and also aected the distancing from the thing scheme to a simi-
lar amount. Participants assigned on average 16 out of 25 personality items to the VBAs
(M = 16.5, SD = 10.2). ey were perceived as very conscientious (M = 4.9, SD = 0.86),
emotionally stable (M = 4.7, SD = 0.97), agreeable (M = 4.6, SD = 1.00), and extraverted
(M = 4.5, SD = 1.09) but less creative (M = 3.0, SD = 1.33). Alexa was perceived as slightly
more conscientious (M = 5.1, SD = 0.77) than Google Assistant (M = 4.7, SD = 0.91),
t(644.34) = 5.803, p < .001. However, only the number of personality items and the VBAs’
creativity predicted a classication distanced from the mere thing scheme (Table 2, Model 5).
Mediation Analyses. Based on the indications of previous studies (e.g., Nass & Lee, 2001;
Woods et al., 2007), and because the VBAs’ attributes eliminated the eects of the situations’
and the users’ attributes, we investigated whether mediation eects were involved. We focus
on mediated variables that had a signicant impact on the classication in Models 1 to 3,
veried by the second sample (see below), and on mediating variables which were signi-
cantly aecting these. Results are reported in Table A2 (OSF).
72 Human-Machine Communication
Alexa’s classication increasingly distanced from the pole thing, due to a higher per-
ceived capability of understanding the user compared to the Google Assistant. However,
the explained variance is very low, thus the two agents do not dier very much from each
other in this respect. Regarding the eect of the situation, both ownership and the previous
use of the VBAs in the absence of others were mediated by agent attributes. Whereas own-
ership increased the VBAs’ similarity in behaving and thinking and its attributed attentive-
ness, previous use in the absence of other people heightened all agency and mind attributes
of the VBA (except similar feeling), encouraging a classication distanced from the thing
scheme. User attributes exhibit mediation eects for age and extraversion, both increasing
a classication toward the pole thing. Whereas increasing age lowered the attributed atten-
tion, number of personality items in general, and the VBAs’ creativity, more extraverted
users perceived less similarity in feeling and fewer personality items. Eects of matching
the respondent’s and VBA’s personality indicated by previous ndings (Nass & Lee, 2001;
Woods et al., 2007) could not be conrmed.
Based on the results of the stepwise robust regression and the mediation analysis, the
theoretical model was adapted (see Figure A1 in the OSF).
Validation of the Results by the Sta Sample
In this section, we will focus on the most important commonalities and dierences in rela-
tion to the student sample. e sta sample conrmed the VBAs’ classication (Table 1), the
amount of condence (M = 4.45, SD = 0.84) and its relation to the classication, r = –.48,
t(429) = –11.38, p < .001. e inuences on the classication were partly conrmed (Table
A3 in the OSF). Whereas, the impacts of age and extraversion (Model 3), the VBAs’ similar
behaving (Model 4) and thinking, its creativity, and the interaction of similar thinking and
feeling (Model 5) were conrmed, the inuences of Alexa (vs. Google Assistant), ownership
and previous use in the absence of other people on the classication were not (Model 2).
However, the direction of the ownership’s and dyad’s eect remained and—consistent with
the student sample—mediating eects of the VBAs’ attributes occurred, although some
involved attributes diered (Table A4 in the OSF). e widespread impact of the previous
dyadic use on the VBAs’ attention, similar thinking and feeling, and creativity was strength-
ened; the impacts of the users’ age through decreased attributed attention to the VBA and
of the users’ extraversion through decreased perceived similarity in feeling were conrmed.
In this paper we analyzed how people classify their counterpart when they interact with
voice-based agents and how attributes of the situation, the user, and the agent inuence this
classication. By referring to Piaget (1970/1974), we introduced an empirically measurable
gradual ontological object–subject classication of VBAs, based on a 100-point scale rang-
ing from thing to person, enabling the identication of the degree to which articial agents
are objects of doubt (Geser, 1989; Reeves & Nass, 1996; Turkle, 1984/2005). Using the VBA
as an example, we have demonstrated the potential of this scale, providing the basis for sys-
tematic investigations into how people classify various machines and how the classication
Etzrodt and Engesser 73
Consistent with previous research (e.g., A. Edwards, 2018; Guzman, 2015), the major-
ity of our participants could not denitely classify VBAs. e object–subject classication
ranged between the two schemes thing (“what”) and person (“who”), as predicted by Geser
(1989) and Gunkel (2020). at is, most people were indeed in doubt. How people compen-
sated for this doubt was analyzed through the concept of equilibration (Piaget, 1970/1974):
Whereas some people had assimilated VBAs by objectifying, almost none had subjectied
them. However, most people had accommodated their classication by modifying the thing
scheme, and some even hybridized it, but still with a bias toward the thing scheme. at
is, people rearmed their lines between things and persons (Turkle, 1984/2005, p. 34) by
embedding VBA in the world of things, partly enriched with aspects of the person scheme.
Hence, VBAs are personied things.
By understanding that people classify VBAs as personied things, counterintuitive
ndings (Gambino et al., 2020) can be interpreted more precisely. e thing aspect in the
classication things and personied things, on the one hand, emphasized the VBA’s arti-
ciality (see Guzman, 2015), thus encourages the reference “it” (see Purington et al., 2017),
or the separation of machines from humans and apes (see A. Edwards, 2018). e person
aspect of personied things, on the other hand, emphasized the VBA’s personhood, causing
the simultaneous use of the pronouns “it” and “she” (Guzman, 2015; Purington et al., 2017)
and the assignment of social machines to (living) beings (see A. Edwards, 2018). Whereas
the aspect of personhood may cause social reactions toward articial agents (see Appel et
al., 2012; Horstmann et al., 2018), their dominant nature as things is likely to be responsible
for rather timid, and normatively undesirable social reactions, such as insults or discourtesy
(see Cercas Curry & Rieser, 2018; C. Edwards et al., 2019).
However, the classication of personied things was characterized by high uncertainty.
e further the participants moved away from the established thing or person scheme, the
less condent they became about their classication. at is, classifying by assimilation is
the easy way, it is the passive (habituated) assignment of an object to an existing scheme.
Whereas accommodation—as an active cognitive process of rearming the boundaries of
the schemes—is fraught with far more doubts. As a result, this classication of personied
things is fragile and unstable and may change signicantly in time—especially regarding
further developments of the agents’ abilities and their societal embedding. Further longitu-
dinal research will be required.
How much VBAs were classied as personied things was—in accordance with pre-
vious research (e.g., A. Edwards, 2018; Moon et al., 2016; Nass & Brave, 2005)—mainly
aected by the perception of the agent’s attributes of agency (behaves similarly, is attentive)
and mind (thinks and feels similar, understands, has a vast personality, especially a creative
one). However, for the same eect on the classication, it required a much lower degree of
mind than agency. Hence, “personied things” expands “social things” (Guzman, 2015) by
implying abilities associated with personhood—even if their degree is low (Hubbard, 2011).
However, attributes of the situation and the user did indirectly alter the classica-
tion by aecting the VBAs’ assumed agency and mind. In accordance with prior research
(A. Edwards et al., 2019; Leite et al., 2013), previous regular interactions positively aected
the perception of VBAs as personied things. In contrast to previous studies (e.g., Pur-
ington et al., 2017), the main use of VBAs in the dyad situation (i.e., in the absence of oth-
ers) caused a stronger classication toward personied things, through increased perceived
74 Human-Machine Communication
agency and mind. One explanation for this may be that the dyad fosters a more intense
experience and lacks the “blueprint” of a human being. As a result, the users can engage
more eectively with the VBA but have only themselves for comparison to project sub-
jectivity. e eect found by Purington et al. may be caused by dierent dynamics. us,
we encourage to further explore the dynamics of dyadic and multi-person environments
regarding the classication.
Corresponding with Piaget (1970/1974), age was a crucial factor for subjectication by
altering the VBA’s agency and mind (e.g., Woods et al., 2007): e younger the participants,
the more attentive, creative, and substantial in personality the VBAs were perceived to be.
An essential factor in this respect is the continually increasing experience with objects of the
environment, which gradually complement the classication and thus extend the options
for comparison of included objects in the scheme.
Rather than an eect of matching personalities of the user and the VBA (Nass & Lee,
2001), the ndings were more ambiguous. Although VBAs were seen as very extraverted
across subgroups, introvert people subjectied them more oen, through increased percep-
tion of similarity in feeling and personality items in general. at is, introverts perceived a
richer personality and emotionality in VBAs. Again, this phenomenon can be related to the
above-mentioned projection of the users’ experienced own subjectivity (Piaget, 1970/1974).
As introverts may experience themselves as rich in emotion and personality, even though
they are—compared to extroverts—less inclined to express these qualities to others, they
likely attribute the same intensity of feelings and personality to the weak expressions of
As with all research, this study has several limitations, of which its hypothetical interac-
tion with its pre-dened questions and answers is one. Additional studies need to validate
the VBA’s classication in real interactions and with dierent contents. A second limitation
is the paper’s focus on VBAs. Comparing various evocative technologies may allow a more
distinct classication and may reveal dierences in inuencing attributes. ird, the clas-
sication of an object is the result of a dynamic equilibration process (Piaget, 1970/1974).
Hence, we solely examined a snapshot of the process, not the process itself. However, it is
unclear whether the classication resulted from initial or multiple equilibration processes.
Most of the participants had at least some experience with the VBA, indicating potential
prior equilibrations. Further research on the process itself, concerning initial and repeated
equilibrations, inuences, and related classications, is needed.
To conclude, human-machine communication in the context of voice-based agents
indicates that people communicate with personied things dened by a moderate agency
and a basic mind. e more VBAs behave, think, feel similar, are perceived to be attentive
to, and understand their users, and are at least to some extent creative, the more they are
classied as personied things. Although this requires a moderate agency, a rather limited
mind is sucient. Depending on the opportunities for comparison on dierent levels, the
classication is more or less hybrid. Comparisons take place on an individual (age, person-
ality) and situational level (dyad). Age relates to the amount of experience with compara-
ble evocative objects, users’ personality relates to the comparison with their own behavior
and mind, and the dyadic situation relates to the comparison with another human subject.
However, the classication of VBAs as personied things is still fragile and they remain
objects of doubt.
Etzrodt and Engesser 75
Katrin Etzrodt (MA) is a research assistant and PhD student at the Chair of Science and
Technology Communication at the Technical University Dresden. From 2017 to 2020 she
was granted a scholarship of the Program for the Promotion of Early-Career Female Scien-
tists of TU Dresden.
Sven Engesser (PhD) is a Professor of Science and Technology Communication at the
Technical University Dresden.
e authors would like to thank the reviewers and the editorial team, whose suggestions
have considerably improved the paper. Additionally, the authors would like to thank Lisa
Weidmüller for her input and feedback at dierent stages of development. Ms. Etzrodt
gratefully acknowledges the support and generosity of the Scholarship Program for the Pro-
motion of Early-Career Female Scientists of TU Dresden, without which the present paper
would not have been possible.
e supplemental material can be obtained from the study’s Open Science Framework
(OSF) repository: https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/5UNS2
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