Practical Empathy:

The Duality of Social and Transactional Roles of Conversational Agents in Giving Health Advice

2020.11 | ICIS 2020


Conversational agents (CAs) are getting increasingly popular for dispensing health advice to both patients and general users. However, the literature on CAs presents a tension between the users’ conceptualization of agent-based conversations in transactional terms and the need for social elements like empathy and rapport-building in the health context. Using the Affective Response Model as a theoretical lens, we explore the social-transactional tension in user expectations of agent responses, based on a qualitative study with 8 participants. We found that a combination of social and transactional elements in agent responses is needed for the participants to feel understood. Furthermore, these two elements are mutually reinforcing reflecting a duality in the role of CAs as health advice agents. The duality is conceptualized through our theorization of Practical Empathy which defines four elements: consistency, progressivity, adaptability, and proactivity — as requirements for CAs to fulfill the expectation of the social-transactional duality.


Practical Empathy, conversational agents, healthcare, user expectation, duality, social and transactional expectations, health advice, agent response


International Conference on Information Systems 2020

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Debjyoti Ghosh and Isam Faik