Support for Human Emotional Needs in Human-Computer Interaction
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” –Henry David Thoreau
It is perhaps a fundamental truth to every psychologist and therapist in
the United States and elsewhere that the fulfillment of emotional needs
is basic and necessary to human well-being. Leading a rich, fulfilling
life is intimately tied to being aware of ones emotional needs, and being
able to meet them [i.e. 1, 2]. Conversely, a life with routinely unmet
emotional needs is often filled with pain, manifesting itself as anxiety,
depression, or violence. Indeed, many of the most virulent problems that
plague human society, from drug and alcohol abuse to violent crime, may
be traced to a widespread inability to meet such basic emotional needs.
Two main factors seem to be at play here: The first may be called
“emotional skill needs”, an awareness of emotions and the ability to
manage them, both ones’ own and those of others . The second factor
may be termed “experiential emotional needs”, which tend to follow
Webster’s definition of a need: “A physiological or psychological
requirement for the well-being of an organism.” When one or more of
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these needs go unmet, the individual may suffer pain; chronic failure to
meet these needs can result in severe effects. Developmental psychology
studies, for example, show that babies raised in orphanages who don’t
receive enough attention either die or have developmental disorders .
We believe that technology has advanced to the point that we can begin to
develop tools that can help people meet their emotional needs, and that
such work is important to the development of human-computer interaction.
While we strongly believe that technology should never replace
interpersonal interaction, humans often suffer from the lack of such
contact. We see technology’s role as a tool to educate, empower and
perhaps help “fill in gaps” for meeting experiential emotional needs when
other humans are unable to fulfill such roles.
Below are provisional lists of the two aforementioned divisions of basic
emotional needs: Emotional skill needs, and experiential needs.
Emotional skill needs [2, 3] are the need for basic skills and abilities
for handling emotions:
o Emotional self-awareness: a need to learn to appraise and express
what one is feeling;
o Managing emotions: the need to handle and regulate feelings so that
they are appropriate;
o Self-motivation: a need to learn to harness one’s emotions in
the service of a goal, for example by delaying gratification.
o Affect perception: a need to accurately appraise what others are
feeling as they are feeling and expressing it;
o Empathy: a need to learn to appreciate what others are feeling
(closely linked in the literature to emotional self-awareness );
o Handling relationships, primarily via managing the emotions of
others. This skill is a necessary component of friendship, intimacy,
popularity, and leadership.
Experiential emotional needs [i.e. 5, 6] are mostly inherently social
needs, and are therefore usually only met with the assistance or presence
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of others. These include a need
o …for attention — strong and constant in children, fading to varying
degrees in adulthood 
o …to feel that one’s current emotional state is understood by others
(particularly during strong emotional response);
o …to love and feel reciprocity of love;
o …to express affection, and feel reciprocated affection expressed;
o …for reciprocity of sharing personal disclosure information;
o …to feel connected to others;
o …to belong to a larger group;
o …for intimacy;
o …to feel that one’s emotional responses are acceptable by others;
o …to feel accepted by others;
o …to feel that emotional experience and responses are “normal”;
o …for touch, to be touched;
o …for security;
How computational media can help
Computers offer great potential for supporting human emotional needs,
because many properties of modern computational media are natural
affordances for supporting emotional needs. In particular, interactive
o Are increasingly portable, smaller, cheaper. Therefore they are
increasingly able to be with their users at all times.
o Show signs of soon being able to sense emotion via a variety of
traditional means such as facial expression , tone of voice ,
and gesture .
o May be able to sense emotion via non-traditional means .
o Are able to be eternally attentive. Event- and interrupt-driven
computational paradigms provide a constant, focused ability to pay
attention to a person; particularly valuable for applications with
o Tend to be treated as real people by humans .
The promise that interactive media hold for supporting both types of
emotional needs is as significant as the promise such media holds for
supporting educational needs, or for enabling social interaction. We
evaluate these opportunities below.
... social medium communication. The notion computational technologies have created an alternative ... media allows people to connect with seemingly any other individual. The ability to connect with people creates satisfaction in the user’s emotional, ... available connectivity, and the emotional and social support found through social communication. ... a better understanding of their emotions in order to respond ...
Supporting emotional skill needs
Educational technology has proven to be an effective and creative means
for enabling learners to acquire academic skills and knowledge. It is
neither a leap of imagination nor faith to imagine such tools designed to
address emotional skill needs. Software tutors could be built today for
students of any age to learn about emotions; other tools could help build
emotional awareness and management skills.
Some of the latter skill-builders could also be constructed today, via
similar means. Even an emotional awareness-builder might be built today,
by prompting the user to record emotions (perhaps selecting from a list
of pre-defined emotions, to start with) at random moments of the day.
Work on such a tool is in the preliminary stages of investigation by the
authors at the MIT Media Laboratory.
Research in the development of real-time emotion sensing and recognition
is also underway as part of the Affective Computing project at the Media
Lab. The realization of this technology may represent a fundamental
advancement in human-computer interaction. For example, it may enable
the development of an emotion-sensitive “Active Listener.” Active
listening is a simple but powerful skill used extensively by experienced
therapists, and involves providing non-judgmental feedback, often about a
speaker’s emotional expression during conversation. While such a tool
would probably rely on still-primitive speech processing capabilities,
the potential benefit for such a tool is enormous. Elliot’s “Affective
Reasoner” , based on the Ortony, et al cognitive model of emotions
, is an existing tool that could be incorporated into a system that
tries to understand how events, acts, and objects are interpreted with
respect to an individual’s goals, standards, and preferences.
Recent work by the first author involves preliminary work toward such
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emotion-content conversational capabilities between user and machine.
Specifically, the author has created a prototype for a software interface
agent that uses machine-learning strategies to learn aspects of
conversational style, to increase the subjective quality of user
experience in dyadic speech interaction with computational media. This
agent is designed to modify a computer’s speech output to adapt to the
way users prefer their conversational partners to interact.
Another possible application lies in supporting the needs of those with
mild autism. There are as many as 460,000 people with autism in the US
alone. Such people are often unable to experience any emotional
awareness whatsoever. Instead, they try to memorize “normal” emotional
responses by others. These people would benefit from an “affect tutor”
that is able to interactively teach its users emotional reactions to a
wide variety of situations.
Supporting experiential needs
While one may assume that experiential needs can only be met by other
humans, this perception is false. Many people routinely meet many of
these needs via other means, such as pet dogs or cats. In fact, people
are able to establish relationships with a wide variety of organisms,
with varying degrees of interactivity, and from whom they derive
substantial pleasure and satisfaction. Computational, “emotionally
supportive” systems would theoretically springboard off of this natural
propensity for inter-organism bonding, and provide the user with an
outlet for emotional expression. The popularity of recent products that
feature computational simulations of pets* demonstrate that interactive
media can stimulate pet-like emotional bonding, for children and adults
alike. Again, this conceptualization does not suggest that machines
would substitute for interpersonal or even inter-organism contact, but
offers a dramatic expansion in the availability and interactivity of
Bleeding-edge speech recognition and understanding still fails to offer
us the ability to support full linguistic communication, and such
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capability would only augment the ability of machines to meet human
emotional needs. This field is advancing rapidly, yet it is clear that
humans can and do meet many of their experiential emotional needs on a
daily basis without requiring linguistic communication. Computational
media has much to offer today and in the future to assist in their
provision, but such products require research and development.
Finally, imagine a computationally-realized “imaginary friend” for a shy
child, who could teach the child about emotions and how to make new
friends, while providing (temporarily) the warmth of companionship he is
Research in computational support for human emotions represents an
expansion of the scope of HCI research, yet such efforts are critical for
the advancement of the field of human-computer interaction. It is our
position that machines can augment the ability of humans to meet most (if
not all) of these needs, and we will enumerate these ideas at the
Nearly all people have emotional needs, and if they go unmet, the
consequences can be great. Therefore, it seems clear that any steps that
can be taken to enable a person at risk to meet his own emotional needs
can have profound effects, not only on the individual but also on those
in his environment. We argue that computational media offers a great
deal of promise for providing such support. We have enumerated a number
of such avenues for future research, as well as our own efforts in this
area. We are just beginning to address these challenges, yet the
importance of this work merits a much larger effort. Fruits of these
endeavors hold the promise of meaningful, beneficial effects on
individuals and the society as a whole.