Robot preachers receive lower donations, study shows

Robot preachers and AI sermons are seen as less credible and are less likely to garner donations than people, according to a new study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“It seems like robots take over more occupations every year, but I wouldn’t be so sure that religious leaders will ever be fully automated because religious leaders need credibility, and robots aren’t credible,” says lead author Dr Joshua Conrad Jackson, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, US.

The researchers conducted three experiments – one at a Buddhist temple, one in a Taoist temple, and an online survey of Christians – to see how three different groups might respond to a robotic or AI preacher.

In the first experiment, Jackson and colleagues surveyed over 400 people as they left the Buddhist Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto, Japan.

This 400-year-old temple introduced a robot, called Mindar, to preach 25-minute sermons in 2019.

“We selected the Kodaiji Temple as the site to carry out data collection because it is perhaps the most famous example in the world of a robot who regularly preaches religious sermons,” write the researchers in their paper.

“Some people visit Kodaiji Temple specifically to see Mindar, but since the temple is already well-established, many people come to the temple with no intent of visiting Mindar.”

The researchers excluded people from the study who’d visited specifically to see Mindar, leaving them with 398 people who had either seen a robot or human sermon, but not both.

Participants consistently rated the robot preacher as slightly less credible than the human preacher.

The researchers also gave participants ¥1000 (A$10.50) for completing the survey, which they could donate any amount of to the temple. Participants who’d seen the human were more likely to donate more back to the temple.

In the second experiment, the researchers collaborated with a Taoist temple in Singapore. On different days, selected at random, either a human preacher or a humanoid robot named Pepper delivered an identical sermon to visitors.

The researchers surveyed 239 visitors to the temple, and provided them with S$5 (A$5.60) which they could donate to the temple if they wished.

Again, participants who’d seen the robot consistently thought it slightly less credible, and donated less of their money back.

“This suggests that there are a lot of people out there who think robots could be effective preachers, but there are more people who aren’t convinced,” says Jackson.

In the third experiment, the researchers surveyed 274 Christians from the US online.

Participants read a sermon which had been written by Jackson, but they were told that it had been written either by a human preacher or an AI.

They were then asked to rate its credibility, and once again, those who’d been told it was written by an AI rated it as less credible.

“Robots and AI programs can’t truly hold any religious beliefs so religious organisations may see declining commitment from their congregations if they rely more on technology than on human leaders who can demonstrate their faith,” says Jackson.

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