Congratulations to Dr. Victoria Galán-Muros

By Socializing Science / Watching Time: 7 Minutes

On April 1st, 2016 Victoria Galán-Muros successfully defended her Phd thesis entitled “Universities at a cross-road – how European universities can engage business in research, education and valorisation to the benefit of all”. 

European universities are at a crossroad. Modern societal demands mean that governments are pushing universities to undertake more ‘usable’ research that solves societal problems and to better educate students for the world of work. These demands push universities closer to markets and businesses, which are eager to access talent and cutting-edge research. However, the university culture and structure are often not aligned to this new paradigm and thus cooperation and its management remain challenging.

In her thesis, Galan-Muros Victoria tackles this complex topic to increase the understanding of how European universities engage with business in education, research and valorization.In he dissertation, a comprehensive framework is developed: the University-Business Cooperation Ecosystem, which supports research and practice.

Socializing Science would like to congratulate her and invite you all to watch her defense in this clip.


Congratulations to Dr. Adina Nerghes!!

By Socializing Science / Watching Time: 10 Minutes

On March 29, 2016 Adina Nerghes successfully defended her Phd thesis entitled “Words in Crisis: A relational perspective of emergent meanings and roles in text.. In her own words, Adina explains her research: Can we infer rich information from `big text data’? And how can we use text-analytical methods to infer such rich information from large text collections with different characteristics? These are some of the questions that guided the aims and outcomes of her research.

For more information on Adina Nerghes, visit her website   at :

Socializing Science would like to congratulate her and invite you all to watch her defense in this clip.

Congratulations to Dr. Anouk van Leeuwen!

By Socializing Science / Watching Time: 10 Minutes

On March 16, 2016 Anouk van Leeuwen successfully defended her Phd thesis entitled “Protest! Studies on Protest Politicization, Perceived Protest Atmosphere, and Protest Policing”. In her thesis, she explores protests and their contours: How do demonstrators experience protests’ atmospheres, and why? Does such perception influence his/her willingness to join street protests in the future? And how can it be determined whether one street protest is more political in nature than others?. This are just some of the questions she addresses.

Socializing Science would like to congratulate her and invite you all to watch her defense in this clip.

How campaigns for the good can adversely strengthen negative prejudice and stereotypes.

camiel photoBy Camiel Beukeboom / Reading time: 7 Minutes

Sometimes attempts to do good have adverse effects. Despite our good intentions we may do more harm than good. Some recent campaigns – all aimed at disproving negative stereotypes and prejudices – unfortunately appear more likely to strengthen negative stereotypic associations than to reduce them. Here is why.

I’m black, but I’m not…

One of these campaigns, published by BuzzFeedYellow and widely shared in social media, shows film clips of individuals from various social categories. One film clip shows black individuals, saying “I am Black, but I’m not…”. Another film clip shows homeless individuals saying “I am homeless, but I’m not…” and there are similar film clips about Muslims, Asians, Latino’s, fat people, and more.

The videos present us with Black people saying they are not “aggressive”, “ghetto”, “violent”, “on welfare”, “lazy”, etc. We see homeless individuals saying they are not “evil”, “drug addicts”, “committing crimes”, “homicidal maniacs”, or “trash”; and we see Muslims saying they are not “angry”, “dangerous”, “terrorists”, “hating America”, or “forced to wear a headscarf”.

black but not aggressiveNow, the tricky adverse effect that the negated messages in these film clips likely produce follows from our research on the negation bias. This research (and other) suggests that negations (as in “X is not aggressive”), are processed as if they were affirmations (i.e., X is aggressive). Even though the link is denied, the message strengthens rather than suppresses thoughts about X being aggressive. Thus, hearing “I am Black, but I am not violent” consequently most likely reinforces a mental association between Black and violent in an audience.

Second, the negated messages communicate what is typically expected for the social category – in other words the apparently existing negative stereotype. Watching the film clips thus teaches these negative associations to people who were still unknowing about them. People who already had (faint) awareness of these associations will have them confirmed.

The attempt to change the stereotypic views occurs in the second parts of the film clips. Here, the same individuals mention characteristics that are stereotype inconsistent (“I am Black, but I am actually …”). They contrast themselves to the generic stereotypic view. This presents them as exceptions to the rule, who happen to have some unexpected other (i.e., positive) characteristics. Unfortunately, this likely conveys that they are outliers; they can be set aside as odd individuals in the context of what everyone stereotypically expects. Such exceptions will more likely have the effect of proving the stereotypic rule in an audience, rather than changing it.

Not a joke (#geengrapje)

This week Dutch minister Jet Bussemaker launched another campaign in the Netherlands aimed at reducing sexism against women. The goal of this campaign says Bussemaker is to create awareness of daily sexism as expressed in denigrating remarks, jokes and ironic remarks. The campaign website ( presents a film clip in which a number of women provide examples of sexist remarks. These remarks imply that women should smile pretty, be sweet, take care of kids, have their period, serve coffee, become pregnant etc.

Indeed, our research on the irony bias shows that such jokes and ironic remarks have a stereotype confirming and maintaining effect. Just like negations, ironic remarks are most likely used in situations in which a person’s behavior deviates from what is stereotypically expected. For instance when a woman shows dominant behavior in a high status job, an ironic remark (“Well, she sure has a sweet pretty smile”) can function to introduce what is expected for a woman instead. The stereotype expectancies surface in such remarks and thereby have the effect of maintaining them.

#geengrapjeThe adverse effect of this anti-sexism campaign, however, lies in the fact that it confronts its audience with an abundance of the sexist remarks it actually aims to combat. Consequently, the campaign has the same negative effect as the sexist remarks: it activates and maintains negative stereotypic associations with women.

Moreover, the campaign website explicitly notes that making sexist remarks is very common behavior. Unfortunately, depicting an undesired behavior as occuring very frequently (i.e., the descriptive norm) has been shown to be a strong motivator of human behavior. Simply because people tend to do what many other people appear to do (Cialdini, 2003). To make it worse, the campaign invites people to show the unwanted behavior by sharing examples of daily sexism on social media using a hashtag (#geengrapje; not a joke). The consequence: social media are bombarded with sexist jokes with all their detrimental effects on impression formation of women.

The intended message of the campaign is that we should not make sexists jokes. Yet, simultaneously the undesired and stereotype maintaining jokes are demonstrated to us, and both implicitly and explicitly encouraged.

Resisting stereotypes

I realize that the campaigns I discussed stem from good intentions, and they may certainly have positive effects. One positive aspect of these campaigns is that they create awareness of both subtle and blatant forms of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. Creating awareness is obviously good, as it may instigate public debates and brings unconscious forms of discrimination to the surface.

It is, however, frustrating to see that these campaigns simultaneously likely backfire to produce the opposite of what they intend to achieve; feeding negative associations. Stereotypes are highly resistant to change. This is partly due to biased language patterns (only some of which I described here) that serve to maintain them. Campaigns aimed at changing stereotypes must therefore be carefully designed in order to prevent potential unwanted and adverse side effects.


Camiel Beukeboom is an Assistant Professor in the department of Communication Science at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He is also Program Director of the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences and initiator and editor of the Socializing Science PhD blog. (@camielbeukeboom)



Beukeboom, C. J. (2014). Mechanisms of linguistic bias: How words reflect and maintain stereotypic expectancies (Chapt.). In J. Laszlo, J. Forgas, & O. Vincze (Eds.), Social Cognition and Communication (pp. 313-330). New York, NY: Psychology Press. Link:

Beukeboom, C. J., Finkenauer, C., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2010). The negation bias: When negations signal stereotypic expectancies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(6), 978-992. Link

Burgers, C., & Beukeboom, C. J. (in press). Stereotype Transmission and Maintenance Through Interpersonal Communication: The Irony Bias. Communication Research. doi: 10.1177/0093650214534975 Link

Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychology, 12, 105-109.

Women’s suffrage: structural conditions & the suffragettes

PalmBy Trineke Palm / Reading Time: 6 Minutes.

Last December Suffragette was premiered in Dutch cinemas. The movie is a penetrating account of the hard fight for the introduction of women’s suffrage in the UK at the beginning of the 20th century. The movie is centered on the role of Emmiline Pankhurst and her suffragettes who strive to acquire this basic political right. Moreover, it provides insights into the societal circumstances of the UK at that time. The movie gets you thinking about (women’s) suffrage in general: how come some countries have been much quicker than others in introducing (women’s) suffrage? What are the factors that influenced this process? And, finally how to put the UK’s stance in a comparative perspective?

SuffragettesAlthough universal suffrage is usually meant to include suffrage for both men and women, well-known and established democratization theories, like the one of Samuel P. Huntington, take male suffrage solely as proxy for measuring democratization. In contrast, as soon as the bar is raised to include women’s suffrage, Huntington’s . Table 1 shows that the timing of male suffrage is not a proxy for the introduction of women’s suffrage. For example, France, Belgium and Switzerland were early in the introduction of male suffrage, but “late” with the introduction of women’s suffrage. In contrast, Austria and Sweden were relatively late in introducing male suffrage, but introduced women’s suffrage “already” just after the First World War. This reveals that an early introduction of male suffrage does not imply an early introduction of women’s suffrage.

As the table shows, both World Wars created a momentum for extending suffrage to women. However, a war cannot as such explain the timing of women’s suffrage as some countries introduced it after the First World War and others only after the Second World War.

Table 1 Introduction of women’s suffrage relative to male suffrage

quella giusta

Although the democratization literature focuses on male suffrage, suffragettes did not escape academic attention, focusing in particular on the success of women’s movement. For example, in her research Lee Ann Banaszak compares the women’s movements in the US and Switzerland. She focuses on the tactics used by the women’s movements in these two countries to explain their (lack of) success; while the US suffragettes were more confrontational, the Swiss movement used a more consensus oriented tactic. While these studies point at the agenda-setting role of suffragettes, they underestimate the constraining or enabling importance of structural conditions. Suffragettes did not emerge and did not operate in a political vacuum. To understand the conditions under which women’s suffrage was introduced early or late,, we have to look at the structural causes. To this effect, I have used Stein Rokkan’s cleavage theory, about fundamental divisions in society. These cleavages concern fundamental conflicts between different societal groups, which played an important role in the process of nation-building.

Political WomenRokkan distinguishes between 4 cleavages: 1) ethnic-linguistic, 2) religious, 3) sectoral (agriculture vs. industry), 4) class. It is expected that ethnic-linguistic fragmentation will delay the introduction of women’s suffrage, because the “women’s issue” is swallowed by other political conflicts. The same applies to the presence of a class conflict. With regards to the sectoral cleavage, we would that in a society with a relatively large agricultural sector women’s suffrage is introduced relatively early, because women stand on more equal footing with men than in an industrial society. These cleavages are not mutually exclusive – rather, it is the combination that matters.

In my research of 13 West-European countries the absence of an ethnic-linguistic cleavage is a necessary condition for an early introduction of women’s suffrage (with the notable exception of Finland).

Table 2 Early introduction of women’s suffrage

table 1

This is in line with the expectation that either suffrage is extended first to the men of the minority population (at the expense of extending suffrage to women), or this ethnic-linguistic cleavage divides women, preventing them to act as a united front. This absence of the ethnic-linguistic cleavage, however, is not sufficient – see France and Italy (table 3). In these countries a religious cleavage, combined with a class cleavage, result in the late introduction of women’s suffrage.

Table 3 Late introduction of women’s suffrage

table 3

Moreover, in contrast to Teri Carraway claims, my study shows that the class cleavage does not necessarily delay the introduction of women’s suffrage; it all depends on the presence of a religious cleavage.In short, to explain the timing of the introduction of women’s suffrage in Western Europe we have to take into account the societal conditions of a given country. However, this does not play down the importance of the agency of women to put the issue of women’s suffrage on the agenda, as highlighted by Lee Ann Banaszak.

Glass cealingA lot has changed since the introduction of women’s suffrage – the legal and actual position of women in the public realm has been much improved. Nevertheless, the discussion about the position of women in the public domain is still a matter of debate, e.g. the “glass ceiling” in academia and business.

The fight for formal political equality was just a start!

Which structural cleavages play a role in these “new” fights for equality?


Trineke Palm MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research is funded by a NWO Research Talent Grant and deals with the character of the EU’s foreign policy.

Comparing conferences – different crowds, different questions

testBy Tamara Bouwman / Reading Time: 5 Minutes / 

After so many years of being a PhD-candidate I’ve seen my share of conferences! In 2015 I attended three completely different conferences: one before summer, and two after (so I had time for a vacation IN summer 😉 ). ‘Different how?’ you may wonder – well, there are three main differences that I will point out in this blog: size of the conferences, topic (or field) and presentation-type.  I will briefly tell you about the three conferences and extract the best aspects of each of them. By doing so, I will be better prepared  for future conferences and make sure I get the most out of each conference visit!


The first conference was the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics – European Region (IAGG-ER) Congress in Dublin, Ireland (23-26 April). The theme of the conference was ‘Unlocking the Demographic Divided’.  This conference was a large gathering of scholars from all over the world. The size of the conference meant that sometimes there were up to 10 sessions parallel to each other. I was in one of these sessions and had about 10 minutes to tell the audience all about my work. A seemingly impossible task, which I somehow managed.

The second conference took place in mid-September (17 and 18 September) in Warsaw, Poland. This was the European Society for Research on Internet Interventions (esrii). The theme of this conference was:  ‘Internet Interventions for People and for Science’. At this conference, I gave a presentation of approximately 15-20 minutes. A funny thing was that I met a group of colleagues there from our own psychology department. Apparently, you have to go to the other side of Europe to meet people who actually work across campus from you.

The third conference was a Dutch conference held in Ede on October 2nd. This was the NVG-KNOWS conference – the conference of the Dutch association for gerontology- during which I presented a poster. The crowd that attended this conference was very mixed: there were fellow scholars, but also a lot of practitioners and other professionals.  It was a one-day conference, so a lot had to be done in one day and sessions were scheduled closely after another. The poster session was scheduled during the morning coffee break.

Conference Size:

I will now tell you about the differences. The first difference that I would like to discuss here is conference size. The IARR-ER conference was a large conference. Compared to this, the other two were small-scale, the internet intervention-conference (esrii) especially. It was hosted at one of Warsaw’s universities instead of the usual large-scale conference venue. Instead of 10 sessions parallel to each other, this conference consisted of only 10 presentation sessions and some additional (poster) sessions. A great advantage of this was that there was more time for the presentations. There was less hurry than at the IARR-ER, and I was allowed 15-20 minutes for my talk.


Considering presentation-type, I really enjoyed the set-up of the poster presentations at the Dutch gerontological NVG conference. Instead of leaving the participants just wander among the posters, the organization decided to make it a bit more structured. The posters were grouped into four topics so that interested participants could join one of the four topics for a pitch with each of the posters. I found this was a nice set-up, because in addition to one-on-one sessions, you also got the opportunity to talk to larger group all in once. Of course, later on there was also room for more in depth one-on-one discussions.


And, finally, the topic (or field) of the conference. The first and the last conferences were gerontology conferences, whereas the middle one was (mainly) in the field of psychology. I did notice quite some differences between the questions I got asked by the different audiences. While at the Dutch gerontology NVG conference I got some more practical questions on the benefit of the research for people in ‘real-life’, the questions at the other two conferences focused a bit more on theory and especially on methodology.


In sum, I know more about my own conference preferences now.  As for size of the conference I must admit that the smaller conferences allow for more interaction with people you don’t know. At the big conferences, on the other hand, you can easily feel lost, both due to the huge amount of participants and the huge amount of content that comes flying at you (For survival tips read Marieke van Wieringen’s blog on how not to drown at conferences). All in all, I would advise (starting) PhD’s to try a bit of everything! So you should try to attend both big and small-scale conferences.

If you have the chance, I also strongly suggest you to participate in conferences in different fields, like I did by attending the very psychological focused conference on internet interventions. The different focus and questions you get asked will give you new ideas! Finally, If you haven’t done a poster presentation at a conference yet I can highly recommend it! It allows for a whole other type of interaction with interested people!

I’m very curious about you experiences – have you been to different conferences? And what differences (or maybe similarities) did you notice?

helpful tips

(If you want to know how to make a good poster read these two blogs: How to make a successful research poster? and  The aesthetics of science)





Tamara Bouwman MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research project is about developing and testing a multifaceted, web-based, friendship program for adults aged 50 years

Reveal the voice of people with intellectual disabilities through a camera

testBy Tessa Overmars-Marx / Reading Time: 5 Minutes

‘It is important that people see us as normal people and recognize us. We are part of the community as well!’

This quote symbolizes the importance of recognizing people with intellectual disabilities as part of our community. Being part of the community means being able to tell your story in everyday life but also in research. So we – as researchers – need to seek for ways to incorporate the voices of people with intellectual disabilities in our studies. Involving people with intellectual disabilities, however, brings many challenges. In my quest to overcome these challenges and to provide people with intellectual disabilities a platform to tell their story, I think I have found a promising method. So, read on….

tessaHow to involve people with intellectual disabilities

People with intellectual disabilities often have difficulties on a communicative, cognitive and conceptual level. As a researcher, this meant I had to look beyond usual interview and focus group methods to productively involve people with intellectual disabilities in my study. By exploring the literature and sharing thoughts with colleagues, I came up with the idea of using photography to enable their involvement. People with intellectual disabilities are often better able to express themselves if they are supported by visual content. After reading other promising experiences with the use of the photovoice method, I became enthusiastic and decided to test it out.

The photovoice methodphotovoice

What exactly does the method involve? It enables people to tell their stories through photographs they have taken themselves. In my study, I wanted to obtain more knowledge about the perspective of people with intellectual disabilities concerning their neighbourhood. So, I asked participants to photograph people and places in their neighbourhood which are important to them. I walked together with the participants through their neighbourhood. I had no active role, but instead I was ‘guided’ by them. In some cases participants found it difficult to take the photos themselves because they had difficulties in handling the camera, so I took the photo for them. However, the participants always determined the topic of their photos themselves. After taking the photos, we planned interviews to discuss them.

The advantages

Photovoice enabled my participants to share their stories about how they feel in their neighbourhood by talking about their (self-taken) pictures. Using photography as an activity made participants feel involved in my research. They were able to naturally tell their personal story without having to refer to the cognitive skills they lack. During the interviews I asked open questions only, for example: what/who is on the picture?; why did you take the picture? And, if necessary, I asked for explanatory examples, like ‘could you tell me when you visited this place or could you give me an example of a joint activity you have carried out with your neighbour?’. By using this technique, I didn’t need any abstract concepts. These advantages provide people with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to explain their neighbourhood experiences and they were able to tell more about the daily contact they exchange with neighbours. This, in turn, was valuable in my research because it provides me with the possibility to distinguish important neighbourhood characteristics from the perspective of people with intellectual disabilities. This information is useful to advise care organisations in their way of working with people with intellectual disabilities who live in regular neighbourhoods.


An example of pictures taken by the participants


My experiences

Walking with the participants through their neighbourhoods meant gaining an insight into their lives. This was really great! The participants provided so much more information that, in my opinion, I would never have been able to elicit by means of conventional face-to-face interviews. The combination of walking together and discussing the photographs worked really well. In my research I want to find out how do people with intellectual disabilities feel in the neighbourhood and what neighbourhood characteristics contribute to this ‘neighbourhood-feeling’?’. To answer this questions their own personal and direct perspective is crucial! Perhaps equally important, caregivers and participants suffering from cold feet overcame their initial skepticism or fright and became enthusiastic! Moreover, since I started the ‘guided photovoice’ I am in a really good shape: I walked for hours with the participants and sometimes I almost had to run to keep up with them.

Would you like to know more about photovoice or do you have any other alternative strategies in interviewing people with intellectual disabilities or other groups, please contact me!


Tessa Overmars-Marx works as a PhD candidate  in the Sociology department. Her PhD Research focuses on the relationship between the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities and neighborhood characteristics.  The research project is conducted in partnership with four care organizations working with people with intellectual disabilities.









A plea for boring research (and how to make it interesting)

Thijs WillemsBy Thijs Willems / Reading Time: 8 minutes


A widely cited article from 1971 by Murray Davis starts as follows:

“It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting[1] (p. 309).

Although Davis’ claim might be provocative to some, I will not throw down this gauntlet here in this blog. Instead, I want to show how I discovered in my research that the interesting stuff is sometimes found in what at first sight may seem utterly boring or mundane. By means of pursue and persistence, the interesting can be found in the boring.

My research is about collaboration between the different railway organizations in the Netherlands. These organizations have had a rather turbulent history (see, for just one example out of many: and with all the current media-attention and public opinions about the performance of NS and ProRail, it is hard to see what exactly is boring about my research. Nonetheless, not long after I started my fieldwork I took interest in the work of train dispatchers, who are responsible for the safe and efficient coordination of trains through stations. In practice, however, most of their work is automatized and dispatchers are mostly busy with the task of monitoring. Monitoring means: lean back in your chair and watch the computer systems do your work.

this3At first sight, I hardly considered to study these monitoring practices into more detail. It was difficult for me to believe that it would be of any significance for my research. However, after observing the dispatchers for quite some time and hearing them talk about their own work, I soon realized that perhaps it is exactly these apparently boring practices that may reveal  a very interesting world of railway employees. In the end, monitoring actually became one of the topics of my research*.
Instead of ‘doing nothing’, monitoring revealed how dispatchers, by means of their computer screens, ‘see and sense’ the railways. Whereas I saw dots, numbers and lines that apparently supposed to represent the actual train service, dispatchers saw an actual, concrete railway world.

This seeing and sensing is based on the fact that many dispatchers have been working for the railways for decades and gained a massive amount of practical knowledge. This may be knowledge ranging from how railway switches work to contextual details of the landscape adjacent to the tracks. John, one of the dispatchers I studied, told me how he once guided  the police (by phone) to a location very close to the tracks where one train driver saw a group of children playing with a ball. At first instance, the police could not find the exact location, but John was able to tell them that “they had to approach the area from the other side, just in front of the sawmill, as there’s a big viaduct blocking easy access”.

Claire, another dispatcher, told me stories about her previous work as a train driver,and how this helped her in being a good dispatcher. Every other day, someone in the Netherlands commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. This can have a tremendous impact on train drivers. The dispatchers are a drivers’ first point of communication after witnessing such a horrible situation. According to Claire, she is capable of having this conversation with the driver in an efficient way (to reduce the impact of this incident for other trains) because she does so emphatically. In other words, her experience as a train driver and witnessing what it means to see someone ‘jump’, is of great influence how she does her job. These stories that lay beneath the ‘boring’ practice of monitoring, taught me how collaboration between the different organizations during disruptions is much more than what I would ever read in handbooks or manuals.

Boring stuff may make you yawn in the first instance.But, there are several strategies through which you can possibly make the boring more interesting:

  • Persist! Whenever you notice something boring, don’t walk away. It may take some time before you can appreciate your observations as more than dull. Always remember the saying: ‘Ambition is the path to success, persistence is the vehicle you arrive in’.
  • Zoom in! From a distance, boring stuff is boring. Make it more interesting by getting up and close. I can guarantee you that even the 50 most boring things in the world will eventually reveal some very unexpected insights.
  • Breach! There have been numerous scholars studying the boring and mundane after Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), ranging from how people queue in supermarkets to how people greet each other on the streets. One of the ways these scholars reveal the interesting in the mundane, is by breaching the social norms and implicit rules to which these actions are organized. So, the next time someone asks you ‘How are you doing?’, do not reply with the standard ‘Great’ but try the following: ‘What do you mean, how am I doing? Do you mean mentally? Physically?’. I can assure you an interesting conversation will emerge.

Here you have it, my plea for boring research. I highly recommend Davis’ somewhat provocative article and hope that you will value the generation of ‘interesting’ new theory as much as the testing or verification of ‘uninteresting’ existing ones.


Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall.

Davis, M. S. (1971). That’s interesting. Philosophy of the social sciences, 1(2), 309.

[1] Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall.

* The paper I wrote about monitoring was presented at the Process Symposium on Kos, Greece. I would like to thank the Graduate Fund for the financial support to go there.


Thijs Willems is a Phd candidate in the Organizational Science department. His research projects focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’.




Robots in healthcare: Curse or Cure?

 Marloes SpekmanBy Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Mrs. Johnson stares out the window. She keeps hoping her children will show up for an unexpected visit, although that rarely happens nowadays. Some days, Mrs. Johnson only sees Jenny from home care. And to Mrs. Johnson’s regret, Jenny never has time for a cup of coffee. Her children, all of whom try to balance a 40-hour work week and raising children, usually visit her twice a month on Sundays, if they’re not too busy that is. She cannot help but feel neglected, especially because she was always there for the kids when they were little. “Mrs. Johnson, would you like some coffee?” a voice speaks. Mrs. Johnson looks up – where did that voice come from? A small, human-looking robot approaches her. Mrs. Johnson closes her eyes, folds her hands and prays the creature will be gone by the time she opens her eyes again…

When I tell people I do research on healthcare robots, I often get negative reactions. Many people are appalled by the idea of their (grand)parents being taken care of by a robot: “What a ridiculous idea! Robots for physical labor are okay, but you really need a human for social tasks. There are plenty of unemployed people!!!”[1]  Why do robots instill such negative reactions? Are we afraid that they will take our place, as is often suggested in newspaper headlines (e.g., “Will Robots Take Your Job?” and “The cute robot that may eventually take your job”)? Or is there something else going on? In this blog, I explain why we are afraid and shed some light on how (un)realistic this fear of robots actually is.

One of the explanations of our fear of robots is the so-called uncanny valley (Mori, 1970). According to Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori, we get an uncanny or eerie feeling when robots look a bit like humans, but do not look and behave human-like enough to be assessed as human. Suppose that you think a person is standing a few meters away. After looking at the person for a while, his/her movements appear unnatural and start to creep you out. Only when you get closer you figure out that the person was in fact a robot. This is exactly what the uncanny valley entails; the robot looks human enough from a distance, but creates an uncanny feeling because of its unnatural behavior. To avoid these feelings, robots need to be designed such that their looks and behavior match: The robot is either approached as human, or clearly approached as a robot (and not somewhere in between).

Another explanation for our fear of robots may be that we are afraid that they will one day take over, or that they will, somehow, evolve beyond our control. This concept is often referred to as singularity. It assumes that, once we build a robot that is more intelligent than the human kind, this robot will start to develop even better robots and artificial intelligence, at which point us humans no longer have control over those robots (Vinge, 1993). In the end, this could lead to dystopian scenarios such as those seen in the Matrix – where the machines use ‘hibernating’ humans as energy source – or I, Robot – where robots start locking people up as the robots have become overzealous in their job of protecting humans. Some scientists suspect that singularity will take place somewhere between 5 and 100 years from now, although other scientists, such as psychologist Steve Pinker, do not believe in the concept of singularity at all: “There is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity. The fact that you can visualize a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible.”

So how realistic is this fear of robots? Most robots currently being developed are only able to do a single thing really well. For instance, Roomba is really good at vacuuming, but is unable to bring you a cold beverage on a sunny day. Robotic seal Paro is really cuddly, and invitating for social interaction (either with Paro, or about Paro with other people around you), but it cannot do much else. For instance, Paro cannot decide for itself to go to the neighbor because it is unable to move independently. And the Japanese robot Ri-man is great at lifting patients, but it will not remind you of your upcoming appointments or that you have to take your medication. Many different kinds of robots already exist, but thus far none of them can do all of the tasks we would want, need, or even fear that robots could do. This is due to the enormous complexities that are involved in the integration of different robotic systems. Social robots in particular seem to be hard to create, as most of these robots currently can only do pre-programmed interactions or are secretly controlled by a human (a research technique often referred to as Wizard of Oz).


Even though robots can currently only do so much, most people still have extreme expectations of new technologies such as robots – either positive or negative. Many of these expectations turn out to be unrealistic after people get the chance to   see the technology with their own eyes or, better yet, experience it for themselves. The same happened with cars; even though they were first seen as extremely dangerous and legislation required a person with a red flag to walk in front of every vehicle to signal its arrival, they now are considered indispensable. So, rather than panic about what the future might bring, we should inform ourselves about what’s already here[2]!

“Would you like some coffee, Mrs. Johnson?” Mrs. Johnson turns around and recognizes her home robot Alice. It has only been a few weeks since Mrs. Johnson was first introduced to Alice, but she already grew quite fond of her mechanical companion. “Ah yes Alice, coffee would be greatly appreciated!” Mrs. Johnson replies. “You know what Alice”, she adds, “Just sit down, I will make some myself!”


Mori, M. (1970). The uncanny valley. Energy, 7(4): 33-35.

Vinge, V. (1993). The coming technological singularity: How to survive in the post-human era. Vision-21: Interdisciplinary science and engineering in the era of cyberspace, 11-22. Retrieved on October 26th, 2015 from:

[1] This is an actual message found online in reaction to a newspaper article about healthcare robots that appeared in the Dutch newspaper Metro in 2012.

[2] For instance, you could check out the award-winning documentary “Alice Cares” (“Ik ben Alice” in Dutch) to see it for yourself: (Dutch version).


Marloes Spekman works as a PhD candidate within the SELEMCA project. The SELEMCA project focuses on the use of technology, such as robots and virtual agents, in the health care domain. Within the project, Marloes specifically focuses on how people’s prior emotions affect their perceptions of healthcare robots.