Nonverbal Immediacy as a Characterisation of Social Behaviour for Human–Robot Interaction


An increasing amount of research has started to explore the impact of robot social behaviour on the outcome of a goal for a human interaction partner, such as cognitive learning gains. However, it remains unclear from what principles the social behaviour for such robots should be derived. Human models are often used, but in this paper an alternative approach is proposed. First, the concept of nonverbal immediacy from the communication literature is introduced, with a focus on how it can provide a characterisation of social behaviour, and the subsequent outcomes of such behaviour. A literature review is conducted to explore the impact on learning of the social cues which form the nonverbal immediacy measure. This leads to the production of a series of guidelines for social robot behaviour. The resulting behaviour is evaluated in a more general context, where both children and adults judge the immediacy of humans and robots in a similar manner, and their recall of a short story is tested. Children recall more of the story when the robot is more immediate, which demonstrates an effect predicted by the literature. This study provides validation for the application of nonverbal immediacy to child–robot interaction. It is proposed that nonverbal immediacy measures could be used as a means of characterising robot social behaviour for human–robot interaction.

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This research was partially funded by the EU FP7 DREAM project (FP7-ICT-611391) and the School of Computing and Maths, Plymouth University, UK. Thanks goes to CAEN Community Primary School, Braunton, UK. for taking part in the evaluation.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to James Kennedy.


Appendix 1: Short Story Script

The following is the short story script as used in all evaluation conditions. The story is largely based on one from the following website: (produced here with permission from the author).

Hello, I’m Charlie. Today I’m going to tell you one of my favourite robot stories. It is about a boy, his name is Ricky, and his robot helper, Johnny. Ricky lived in a lovely futuristic house, which had everything you could ever want. Though he didn’t help much around the house, Ricky was still as pleased as punch when his parents bought him the latest model of helper robot. As soon as it arrived, off it went; cooking, cleaning, ironing, and—most importantly—gathering up old clothes from Ricky’s bedroom floor, which Ricky didn’t like having to walk on.

On that first day, when Ricky went to sleep, he had left his bedroom in a truly disastrous state. When he woke up the next morning, everything was perfectly clean and tidy. In fact, it was actually too clean. Ricky could not find his favourite blue skateboard. However much he searched, it did not reappear, and the same was starting to happen with other things. Ricky looked with suspicion at the gleaming helper robot. He hatched a plan to spy on the robot, and began following it around the house.

Finally he caught it red-handed. It was picking up a toy to hide it. Off he went, running to his parents, to tell them that the helper was broken and badly programmed. Ricky asked them to have it changed. But his parents said absolutely not; it was impossible, they were delighted with the new helper, and that it was the best cleaner they had ever met. So Ricky needed to get some kind of proof; maybe take some hidden photos. He kept nagging his parents for three whole weeks about how much good stuff the robot was hiding. Ricky argued that this was not worth the clean house because toys are more important.

One day the robot was whirring past, and heard the boy’s complaints. The robot returned with five of his toys, and some clothes for him.“Here sire, I did not know it was bothering you”, said the helper, with its metallic voice. “How could it not you thief?! You’ve been nicking my stuff for weeks”, the boy answered, furiously. The robot replied, “the objects were left on the floor. I therefore calculated that you did not like them. I am programmed to collect all that is not wanted, and at night I send it to places other humans can use it. I am a maximum efficiency machine. Did you not know?”.

Ricky started feeling ashamed. He had spent all his life treating things as though they were useless. He looked after nothing. Yet it was true that many other people would be delighted to treat those things with all the care in the world. And he understood that the robot was neither broken nor badly programmed, rather, it had been programmed extremely well! Since then, Ricky decided to become a Maximum Efficiency Boy, and he put real care into how he treated his things. He kept them tidy, and made sure that he didn’t have more than was necessary. And, often, he would buy things, and take them along with his good friend, the robot, to help out those other people who needed them.

The end... I hope you enjoyed the story. Goodbye!

Appendix 2: Robot Nonverbal Immediacy Questionnaire (RNIQ)

The following is the questionnaire used by participants in the evaluation to rate the nonverbal immediacy of the robot, as based on the short-form nonverbial immediacy scale-observer report. The directions are provided verbally by the experimenter, so the top of the survey simply asks to ‘please put a circle around your choice for each question’. Options are provided in equally sized boxes below each question. The options are: 1 = Never; 2 = Rarely; 3 = Sometimes; 4 = Often; 5 = Very Often. The questions are as follows:

  1. 1.

    The robot uses its hands and arms to gesture while talking to you

  2. 2.

    The robot uses a dull voice while talking to you

  3. 3.

    The robot looks at you while talking to you

  4. 4.

    The robot frowns while talking to you

  5. 5.

    The robot has a very tense body position while talking to you

  6. 6.

    The robot moves away from you while talking to you

  7. 7.

    The robot varies how it speaks while talking to you

  8. 8.

    The robot touches you on the shoulder or arm while talking to you

  9. 9.

    The robot smiles while talking to you

  10. 10.

    The robot looks away from you while talking to you

  11. 11.

    The robot has a relaxed body position while talking to you

  12. 12.

    The robot stays still while talking to you

  13. 13.

    The robot avoids touching you while talking to you

  14. 14.

    The robot moves closer to you while talking to you

  15. 15.

    The robot looks keen while talking to you

  16. 16.

    The robot is bored while talking to you


Step 1 Add the scores from the following items:1, 3, 7, 8, 9, 11, 14, and 15.

Step 2 Add the scores from the following items:2, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 13, and 16.

Total Score = 48 plus Step 1 minus Step 2.

This questionnaire can also be downloaded online.Footnote 6 The online version has been modified from the version shown here as children commonly did not understand the word ‘varies’ in question 7, so this now reads ‘changes’.

Appendix 3: Recall Quesionnaire

The following questions are those used in the recall questionnaire; in brackets after each question are the possible answers.

  1. 1.

    What is the name of the boy in the story? {Ricky, Mickey, Harry, Jeff}

  2. 2.

    What is the name of the robot in the story? {Rupert, John, Johnny, George}

  3. 3.

    What was the most important thing for the robot to pick up from the floor of the boy’s bedroom? {clothes, food, toys, t-shirts}

  4. 4.

    What did the boy think about doing to get proof of the robot taking his things? {taking photos, shouting at it, taking video, telling his parents}

  5. 5.

    What toy couldn’t the boy find the first day after the robot had tidied? {orange skateboard, games console, blue skateboard, blue doll}

  6. 6.

    How many toys did the robot give back to the boy after he complained? {eight (8), five (5), three (3), six (6)}

  7. 7.

    How long did the boy complain to his parents for? {three (3) weeks, eight (8) days, three (3) days, four (4) weeks}

  8. 8.

    What type of boy did he decide to be at the end of the story? {maximum efficiency, tidy, minimum efficiency, messy}

  9. 9.

    What type of robot is the one in the story? {angry, purple, helper, flying}

  10. 10.

    What is the robot in the story especially good at? {ironing, swimming, jumping, cleaning}

  11. 11.

    What was the moral of the story? free text answer

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Kennedy, J., Baxter, P. & Belpaeme, T. Nonverbal Immediacy as a Characterisation of Social Behaviour for Human–Robot Interaction. Int J of Soc Robotics 9, 109–128 (2017).

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  • Nonverbal immediacy
  • Social behaviour
  • Robots for education
  • Social cues
  • Human–robot interaction